Themes and Meanings

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Edward Bond has described Lear as “a very grim play.” Its importance, however, does not lie in Lear’s tragic vision but in the story of one man who, against all odds, takes action to change his world. On this journey toward enlightenment, Lear undergoes tremendous suffering. Bond has said that “we develop through our problems, not just solving them, but through clashing with them.” In many of his plays, this friction manifests itself in violence. Some critics have charged that the violence in Lear is excessive and gratuitous. In response, Bond contends that the play accurately reflects the consequences of the abuse of power. His intention in Lear is to show how individual acts of violence and the large-scale violence of wars and power struggles alike reflect the sickness of an unjust society.

This theme is most vividly expressed in Fontanelle’s autopsy. Lear watches the doctor’s exploration of the corpse, asking, “Where is the beast?” He believes that there is a monster inside his daughter that is causing her to act violently. Like Oedipus, Lear begins to see only after his blinding. He realizes that violent impulses do not have their origin within the individual. The wall he was building to prevent others from invading his lands was pointless, then, because it did nothing to solve the basic problems of society.

Similarly, it becomes clear during the play, both to the audience and to Lear, that Bodice and Fontanelle are really manifestations of their culture. The sisters’ schemes, manipulation, and love of power are all characteristics instilled in them unknowingly by Lear. When the ghosts of Bodice and Fontanelle appear to Lear in the play, they do so just as the coffins of soldiers are being returned home for burial. It is evident Lear’s daughters have been weaned on death and a confirmation of the established order.

Cordelia wants to understand how the Gravedigger’s Boy views life but cannot reconcile herself to his abundant charity. Cordelia’s fears are apparently justified as she witnesses her husband’s murder and through her own rape and miscarriage. She becomes a tough guerrilla leader in response to the actions of those around her. Cordelia believes that she can forcefully create a society that is fair and just.

The Gravedigger’s Boy presents a different way of life. On their farm, he and his wife provide for themselves, living off the land. Such a peaceful existence appeals to Lear, and for a brief time he thinks that he can be part of it. Bond, however, does not permit Lear to hide here. The destruction of this way of life is the writer’s way of demonstrating the impossibility of either Lear’s or the Gravedigger’s Boy’s escaping from reality: a reality resulting from a society Lear has formed but can no longer control. Bond is not criticizing a pastoral way of life; he is simply saying that it cannot exist within the established structure. The ghost of the Gravedigger’s Boy appears as Lear screams, “I must forget! I must forget!” The ghost acts as a reminder that Lear is part of a world that he must rejoin and destroy from within if he wants to help in establishing a new form of society.


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Parents and Children
In Lear Bond provides a picture of a family that has disintegrated. In the very first scene of the play, Bond portrays hostility between Lear and his daughters. Bodice and Fontanelle reveal to their father that they will marry his enemies, the Duke of North and the Duke of Cornwall,...

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then tear down Lear's wall. Lear responds in kind, telling them he has always known of their maliciousness. When Lear
leaves the stage, Bodice and Fontanelle reveal then-plans to attack their father's army. Lear and his daughters are literally at war with one another; when presented with Lear's death warrant, Fontanelle eagerly signs it. At his trial Lear seems to reject his children altogether, saying he has no daughters.
Yet in prison, Lear shows a desire for a relationship with his children. Lear asks the Ghost to bring him his daughters who, he now says, will help him. Apparitions of the daughters as young girls appear, and the audience is given the sense of happier, more peaceful times. The daughters are afraid of being in prison, but Lear comforts them. When they say they must leave, Lear begs them to stay. Lear realizes that at some point in the past his daughters were kind, lovable people. Later, when Fontanelle is killed and autopsied, the procedure reveals to Lear that his daughter is flesh and bone and not some evil beast in human guise.

Lear is awed by the beauty and purity of the inside of Fontanelle's body. He sees no maliciousness, no evil, there, just base human matter. He says that if he had known how beautiful Fontanelle was, he would have loved her. ' 'Did I make this-—and destroy it?" he asks. It is only at the autopsy that Lear realizes that he is responsible for the evil in his daughters. He has shaped their personalities and behavior. They learned all of their cruelty, greed, and thirst for power from him There is an inherent connection between the children and the parent who nurtured their development, and Lear can no longer see himself as simply the victim of his daughters' evil. Lear and his daughters are inextricably bound together. By the time Lear realizes this, however, it is too late. Both daughters are dead, and he cannot change the past. The disintegrated family cannot be rebuilt. Lear must live with his guilt.

Violence and Power
In his preface to Lear Bond states, "I write about violence as naturally as Jane Austen wrote about manners." For Bond, violence is an integral part of contemporary society; writing about modern culture means writing about violence. Lear begins and ends with violence. In the first scene, Lear shoots a worker who has accidentally caused another worker's death; in the last scene, a soldier shoots and kills Lear. In between, there are numerous acts of brutality. Warrington's tongue is cut out, he is tortured, and knitting needles are shoved into his ears. The innocent Gravedigger's Boy is shot, and his wife is raped. Even as a Ghost, the Gravedigger's Boy suffers a second violent death, this time an attack by pigs. Fontanelle is shot and Bodice is gored by soldiers. Numerous minor characters also die violent deaths.

Aside from the violence, there are scenes depicting graphic gore. The autopsy of Fontanelle and the blinding of Lear are among the most horrifying scenes in recent literature As traumatic as watching Bond's violent scenes may be for the audience, however, it is important to note that these scenes are not mere titillation or sensationalism; Bond uses the violence in Lear, as well as in his other plays, to highlight the violence of modern society. His interest is not simply in the violence itself, but in the circumstances that provoke such savagery in both reality and fiction.

Most of the violence in Lear is directly related to the desire for power. When the first worker is shot in Act I, the audience immediately realizes a connection between Lear's power and the violence that has repeatedly been used m the formation of his regime. Supposedly horrified by Lear's violence, Bodice and Fontanelle revolt against their father, but once m power, they are every bit as violent as he. One might expect Cordelia, originally one of the oppressed masses, to also govern without violence, but, once in power, she is as ruthless as Lear and his daughters Although the rulers change, their policies of governing through violence remain the same. The very structure of this society is violent. It is Bond's intention that the audience see the violence of Lear's society as a reflection of its own time. Through recognition of its own savagery, society may change.

Lear begins the play as a violent man, a ruthless king. His rancor is immediately highlighted when he shoots one worker who has accidentally killed another. The crime, in Lear's view, is not in taking an innocent life, but in delaying the building of the wall. Although the king, when he talks of his people in the abstract, speaks of his duty to protect them, as individuals their lives mean nothing to him As the play progresses—and his circumstances change— Lear begins to perceive things differently. When his daughters' revolution succeeds, he flees to the countryside, where he meets the Gravedigger's Boy, who generously feeds him and gives him sanctuary.

Lear witnesses the human ability to forgive when the Boy tells him of the subjects' suffering caused by the building of the wall and yet allows the deposed king to stay. Lear's education in suffering
is continued when he sees the Boy killed, his wife raped, and their livestock killed. His imprisonment by his daughters also teaches him about pain. In prison, Lear develops feelings of protectiveness toward the Ghost. Also in prison, Lear's observation of Fontanelle's autopsy helps him to further see the damage for which he is responsible. At this point, when he is beginning to see, Lear is blinded.

The blind Lear is released and meets the farmer, Ms wife, and their son; Lear now truly sees their suffering and longs to end it. He begins to live among the people and endangers his own life by offering sanctuary to all who need it and by speaking out against Cordelia's regime. Lear's last act is his attempt to tear down the wall, an attempt that will clearly fail, and he dies in this symbolic act. Violence and evil still reign. Yet, in Lear's transformation and virtuous final act, an example for positive change has been presented.