Essential Passage by Character: King Lear

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Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1268

KING LEAR:
Howl, howl, howl, howl! O, you are men of
stones:
Had I your tongues and eyes, I'ld use them so
That heaven's vault should crack. She's gone for ever!
I know when one is dead, and when one lives;
She's dead as earth. Lend me a looking-glass;
If that her breath will mist or stain the stone,
Why, then she lives.
KENT:
Is this the promised end?
EDGAR:
Or image of that horror?
ALBANY:
Fall, and cease!
KING LEAR:
This feather stirs; she lives! if it be so,
It is a chance which does redeem all sorrows
That ever I have felt.
KENT:
[Kneeling]
O my good master!
KING LEAR:
Prithee, away.
EDGAR:
'Tis noble Kent, your friend.
KING LEAR:
A plague upon you, murderers, traitors all!
I might have saved her; now she's gone for ever!
Cordelia, Cordelia! stay a little. Ha!
What is't thou say'st? Her voice was ever soft,
Gentle, and low, an excellent thing in woman.
I killed the slave that was a-hanging thee.
CAPTAIN:
'Tis true, my lords, he did.
KING LEAR:
Did I not, fellow?
I have seen the day, with my good biting falchion
I would have made them skip: I am old now,
And these same crosses spoil me. Who are you?
Mine eyes are not o' the best: I'll tell you straight.
Act 5, Scene 3, Lines 305-333

Summary

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In the play's culmination, King Lear, out of his madness, at last comes to the full realization of all that is caused by his hubris and self-love. Having wandered away from the protection of the Duke of Gloucester and Kent, he has been captured by Edmund, imprisoned with his loyal daughter Cordelia. Albany has arrested Edmund for the treason he has committed against the king. Lear’s unfaithful daughters, Goneril and Regan, are dead. Regan has been poisoned by Goneril out of suspicion and jealousy, should she manage to snare Edmund in her newfound widowhood. Out of grief at Edmund’s arrest and sure execution, Goneril has committed suicide. In a duel, Edgar, the legitimate son of the Duke of Gloucester, has mortally wounded Edmund, who lies dying. In a last ditch attempt to do something good, he warns Albany that he has ordered the deaths of Lear and Cordelia. They are to be hanged in an attempt to make it appear that the two have committed suicide. The guards rush to their place of imprisonment, but it is too late. Cordelia has been hanged, but Lear managed to kill the hangman before he himself suffered the same fate. Cordelia’s body is carried to the stage by Lear himself.

In his grief, Lear castigates those remaining alive in their seeming indifference to all the loss that has been suffered, especially in the death of Cordelia. He struggles to accept his daughter’s death, stating at first that she is “as dead as earth.” He insists he knows who is alive and who is dead, and yet he cannot quite accept it. He asks for a mirror against which he can check to see if Cordelia still has breath enough to fog up the mirror.

Kent, Edgar, and Albany wonder if this is indeed the end of the world because so many deaths have occurred at a single time. While they cry against the heavens, Lear holds up a feather to Cordelia’s lips and thinks he sees it moved by her breath. “She lives,” he states simply. If this is true, he says, it would redeem all the sufferings he has encountered thus far.

Kent approaches his king, but Lear orders him away in his despair. In grief, Lear calls all of them murderers and traitors, yet he realizes that he himself could have saved her if he had only not cast her out.

As his mind slips, Lear thinks he hears Cordelia whispering something to him, stating that “her voice was ever soft, gentle, and low, an excellent thing in woman.” Then bluntly he announces that he himself killed her executioner, to which one of the guards offers verification. Lear seems to take some pride in this fact, stating that in his youth he could have done a much better job of it. Yet now he is old, burdened by adversities that plague him. Seeing a figure before him, he asks who it is (it is Kent). Lear admits that his sight is not the best.

Analysis

In this passage, Lear learns all the lessons he is supposed to learn, albeit too late. Through his failure as a king and a parent, those closest to him have died, and he himself is near his end. Through his madness, Lear begins to realize some element of truth.

Lear must face the consequences of his hubris—a self-absorbed pride that holds that all the world revolves around oneself. He began this path the moment that he decided to partially abdicate his throne: he wanted to keep the title and the rewards but not the responsibilities. The attitude that the kingdom “owes him a living” without any effort on his part goes against all that was held to be the right order of society at the time. Kings were kings until death. The idea of “retirement” was unheard of.

Not only in his stately duties was Lear a taker and not a giver. In his own family, he continued this practice, expecting love simply because he was a father, without any idea of being lovable. He expected his daughters to hold him as the center of their universe, in a sense their “god.” Goneril and Regan acquiesced to this, simply out of their own pride and future hope of reward. Following his example, these two eldest daughters paid lip service to their king and parent, while holding themselves as the center of their own universes. Goneril, in copying her father, rejected the then “traditional” concept of a wife and made herself the head.

Cordelia alone lived a life of humility or, as she labeled it, duty. Her thought was not for herself and what reward she would get from her father. Her refusal to speak in lofty, and insincere, terms of her love for her father was condemned by Lear (hypocritically so) as pride. It was only in the end, as they faced death together, that Lear truly understood the meaning of love.

Lear speaks to Kent of his difficulty in seeing. Beyond the physical loss of eyesight, Lear had lost his vision of reality. He saw what he wanted to see. The reality of Cordelia did not fit that which he saw, and thus he was blind to it. In the case of Kent, Lear also failed to see the love born out of duty that caused Kent to rebuke him at his exile of Cordelia. It was not a condemnation but a correction, one that pointed Lear back to the truth after he strayed along the paths of his own self-deception.

Whether or not one can say that Lear achieved redemption through his revelation of the truth is problematic. He came to this realization only after it was too late. There was no correction of his errors, since death had come as a consequence to all. If one can say that redemption of the mind is equal to redemption of the physical realm, then Lear indeed achieved redemption. Yet what good is redemption if it is confined to the realm of the mind? As such, it would be limited to Lear himself. The land itself, the kingdom of Britain that Lear abandoned and failed, must be redeemed by another.

Essential Passage by Theme: Fatalism

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Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1161

GLOUCESTER:
Away, get thee away; good friend, be gone:
Thy comforts can do me no good at all;
Thee they may hurt.
OLD MAN:
Alack, sir, you cannot see your way.
GLOUCESTER:
I have no way, and therefore want no eyes;
I stumbled when I saw: full oft 'tis seen,
Our means secure us, and our mere defects
Prove our commodities. O dear son Edgar,
The food of thy abused father's wrath!
Might I but live to see thee in my touch,
I'ld say I had eyes again!
OLD MAN:
How now! Who's there?
EDGAR:
[Aside]
O gods! Who is't can say 'I am at the worst'?
I am worse than e'er I was.
OLD MAN:
'Tis poor mad Tom.
EDGAR:
[Aside]
And worse I may be yet: the worst is not
So long as we can say 'This is the worst.'
OLD MAN:
Fellow, where goest?
GLOUCESTER:
Is it a beggar-man?
OLD MAN:
Madman and beggar too.
GLOUCESTER:
He has some reason, else he could not beg.
I' the last night's storm I such a fellow saw;
Which made me think a man a worm: my son
Came then into my mind; and yet my mind
Was then scarce friends with him: I have heard more
since.
As flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods.
They kill us for their sport.
Act 4, Scene 1, Lines 15-40

Summary

Gloucester, blinded at the command of his illegitimate son Edmund, wanders the barren countryside, accompanied by an old man. He is met by his legitimate son Edgar, who is disguised as a beggar to protect his life from the death warrant signed by Gloucester, based on the false accusations of Edmund.

Earlier in the scene, Edgar reflects that it is better to be a beggar and openly despised than to be quietly despised but flattered. He taunts the “unsubstantial air” (reflecting his disbelief in the gods and their interest in mankind) that has blown him into such a low estate. He then sees his father, blinded and led by a peasant.

The old peasant expresses his loyalty to the Duke of Gloucester, stating that he has always been loyal, even from the time of the duke’s father. Yet Gloucester can accept no comfort; his despair is at its lowest point.

The old man resists leaving, saying, “You cannot see your way.” In total resignation, Gloucester says, “I have no way.” He does not need eyes to see where he is going if he has nowhere to go. In fact, states Gloucester, even when he had eyes, they proved to be of little use to him. Perhaps having no eyes will help him to see more clearly. Yet it is too late, as far as concerns his son Edgar. Gloucester wishes that he could “see” him once again, even if just by touch.

When the old man calls out, Edgar states that he cannot say he is at his worst, since things always seem to get even worse. As a response to Gloucester’s query, the old man says that a madman and a beggar approaches. Gloucester marvels, since the night before he thought he saw such a person, which made him realize that men are but worms in significance. He also remembers that he thought of his son Edgar at that moment, even though he was still angry with him. Now, Gloucester says that he knows better. Mankind is nothing but a plaything of the gods, who kill them purely for sport.

Analysis

This passage exemplifies the fatalism expressed by so many characters throughout the play. Man is the victim of fate, which cannot be influenced by an individual’s choices, as opposed to destiny, which can. The sense of helplessness increases from Cordelia’s exile to the final act.

Cordelia, in her loyalty, is rejected. Being truly good, she is condemned. Her only recourse would have been resignation to falsity, as her sisters do. Yet she must be true to what she knows in her heart—the real love that she has for her father. Yet her commitment to truth grants her nothing, leading only to her eventual death. In Gloucester’s viewpoint, goodness is not a guarantee of reward.

Yet neither is goodness alone condemned. Lear himself, who has sunk into his pride, faces the same outcome, as do Edmund, Goneril, Regan, and Cornwall. Good and bad, they all die. Regardless of the deeds that have done, their fate is an untimely death.

Gloucester’s pre-Christian philosophy mirrors those of others, like the ancient Greeks. They too believed that they were the playthings of the gods. The notion of sacrifices and offerings were not gifts of devotion. Rather, they were seen as a way to placate the gods in order to get them to leave humans alone and in peace. The notion of the love of a god would not come until the later Judeo-Christian tradition. In this, Shakespeare manages to avoid “Christianizing” the ancient tale of Lear (or “Leir”). Keeping true to the ancient pagan faith of Britain, he removes the personal interest of the gods in human affairs.

Gloucester’s fatalism removes any kind of spiritual relationship on the part of mankind. It is only for this life that one has hope of any sort of happiness, even though that may be marred by the arbitrary actions of the gods. No sense of duty to the divine also plays out in having no sense of duty to a parent, as is evident in the actions of Goneril, Regan, and Edmund. The benevolence of fathers is a thing not known, which the parallel plots of Lear and Gloucester highlight. Lear has had little true love for his children, making their inheritance conditional on the spoken professions he wants to hear (whether they be true or not). In a sense, therefore, Lear’s daughters are also a “plaything” to their father. He toys with their destiny for amusement and self-gratification.

Likewise, Gloucester displays a self-absorbed nature in his relationships with his sons. Both sons, “equal in his love,” are products of his duty to his wife and his surrender to his passions. In the eyes of the Elizabethan audience for which this play was performed, the preference for an illegitimate child over the rights of a legitimate child would be an upset of the balance of the natural order. In a sense, therefore, while Gloucester proclaims that he is but the plaything of the gods, he has made the gods playthings of himself. Rejecting “what is right,” he has done what he wanted for his own benefit or amusement.

Gloucester’s fatalism has thus replaced any sense of justice in the world. Gloucester rejects the divine because he feels the divine has rejected him. As he himself now must live in darkness due to his blindness, all of mankind might as well give up their eyes. There is nothing to see for which seeing will make any difference.

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