Lear Essays and Criticism
by Edward Bond

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Moral Development of Lear

(Drama for Students)

In his play Lear, Edward Bond focuses on the moral development of the title character, a king in ancient Britain. Although Lear begins the play as an old man. his behavior is that of a child; he is totally absorbed in himself and his own security and needs. He is literally building a wall to keep others out. As the play progresses, however. Lear loses his position of power and is forced to move outside of his self-absorbed sphere and into the society he helped to create. As he suffers along with his former subjects, Lear begins to mature, realizing that others are human beings with needs and desires of their own. For the first time, Lear truly sees other people, and this leads him to recognize the consequences of his own actions and to take responsibility for what he has done. His moral growth, however, is only complete when he turns his understanding into action. It is only then that he becomes a morally mature human being.

When the audience first meets Lear, he is morally a child, seeing nothing beyond his own needs and desires. He is obsessed with the building of his wall, which he claims will benefit his people. It is clear from the beginning, however, that Lear has a callous disregard for others He complains about the workers leaving wood in the mud to rot, then almost immediately turns to complaints about the living conditions of the men. Bond makes it clear, however, that Lear's complaints do not arise from true concern for his workers. His dissatisfaction about their living conditions is, in fact, parallel to his complaint about the wood. "You must deal with this fever,'' he tells the" Foreman. “When [the men] finish work they must be kept in dry huts. All these huts are wet." Like the wood, the men are being left to rot. Lear goes on to tell the Foreman, "You waste men," a statement that shows that to Lear, the workers are simply more materials to be used in building the wall.

Bond makes Lear's attitude even more clear when Lear's primary concern with the accidental death of a worker is that it will cause delay in building the wall. Lear insists, over the protests of his two daughters, Bodice and Fontanelle, that the worker who inadvertently caused the death be executed. Here Bond contrasts Lear's spoken concern for his people with his actions. When his daughters say they will tear down the wall, Lear says, “I loved and cared for all my children, and now you've sold them to their enemies'" Immediately after this statement, Lear shoots the worker who caused the death; it is Lear who is the true enemy of his people.

What Lear's wall actually protects is not so much his subjects but his position as their king. When his daughters reveal their plans to take over the kingdom, Lear turns on them as well, saying, “I built my wall against you as well as my other enemies." In his book The Art and Politics of Edward Bond, Lou Lappin pointed out that Lear's wall also functions as a glorification of himself. Lear says, "When I'm dead my people will live in freedom and peace and remember my name, no-venerate it." Lappin called the building of Lear's wall "a self-absorbed gesture, an act of solipsism that seeks to ennoble itself in a cult of personality.'' Like a child, Lear thinks only of himself.

In his book The Plays of Edward Bond, Richard Scharine wrote, "When Lear is overthrown, he is propelled into the society he created like a baby being born." Scharine went on to say, however, that "the mere fact of his being overthrown does not teach Lear moral maturity." At the Gravedigger's Boy's house, Lear is still very much a child. Physically, he depends on the Gravedigger's Boy and his wife to feed and shelter him. "You've looked after me well," says Lear. "I slept like a child in the silence all day." Like a child, Lear retains his self-absorption. When he glimpses the tortured Warrington, Lear's emphasis is not on Warrington's pain, but on the effect of that sight on himself: "I've seen a ghost. I'm going to die. That's why he came...

(The entire section is 7,593 words.)