Study Notes on ‘King Lear’

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These notes are directed mainly at those Leaving Cert students (Higher Level) who are undertaking the study of King Lear as a Comparative Text

HISTORICAL/LITERARY BACKGROUND

Shakespeare’s King Lear was written around the year 1605 and basically sets good (as represented by Cordelia, Edgar and Kent and later Lear) and evil (represented by Goneril, Regan, Cornwall and Edmund) in opposition.  The play has invited its fair share of controversy.  Some critics have called it the finest of Shakespeare’s plays, others have accused the play of being too pessimistic even for a tragedy. Shakespeare’s Elizabethan world (shortly before and after 1600) reflects, in some respects, a very different society to the many other societies and cultures depicted in your other Comparative Texts.

Shakespeare’s tragedy reflects the concerns and aspirations of Elizabethan society.  It also conforms to the conventions of the theatre of this period.  The publication date of King Lear in 1605 places it among the later works of Shakespeare and it must be said that this was a period of rapid change and expansion, ruled over by Elizabeth I, who ascended the throne in 1558 and James I who succeeded her in 1603.

The reign of Elizabeth brought about great change in England which resulted partly from her vibrant personality.  She made the monarchy as lavish a spectacle as Shakespeare made his theatre.  Like Queen Victoria in the 19th. century, Elizabeth’s aim was to make the monarchy a popular and powerful institution.  Unlike Victoria, however, Elizabeth was an exhibitionist who believed in dazzling her subjects with her regal splendour.  Her lavishly decorated dresses (Remember Dame Judy Dench in Shakespeare in Love?), magnificent coach and enormous troupe of servants provided a sense of pageantry for the population who lined the streets hoping to catch a glimpse of her as she made her way to the provincial towns and cities.

The Elizabethan court set new trends in style, art, literature and drama but the main concern of Elizabeth was to create a politically stable and united country.  This concern is illustrated in the desperate measures she took to secure her position on the throne, for example the execution of Mary Queen of Scots in 1587, and the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588 and the suppression of the Geraldine Rebellion in Munster and the subsequent beheading of our own Earl of Desmond!

When Elizabeth died in 1603 her successor, James IV of Scotland, was also a keen supporter of the theatre and he bestowed on Shakespeare’s company the privileged title of the ‘King’s Men’.  This privilege ensured the acceptance of Shakespeare and his company within the Royal Court and his continued prosperity as a playwright.

The tragic nature of King Lear is not entirely at odds with the real events which were unfolding in the court of James I.  James was the first monarch to rule (however briefly) over the United Kingdom of England, Scotland and Wales and he was very fond of feasting, drinking, hunting, and the splendid trappings of monarchy.  These examples of James’s character are evident in Lear who is willing to leave the affairs of state in the hands of Goneril and Regan while he enjoys feasting, drinking, hunting and riding with his knights.

THE STORY

Lear is an old man when the play opens.  He decides to divide up his kingdom by means of a childish love-test based on words.  When Cordelia refuses to co-operate she is stripped of her dowry and banished to France.  Goneril and Regan, his other two daughters, take over the kingship.  These are shrewd operators who have assessed Lear’s flaws fully.  They plot together so that they will not suffer from his senile unpredictability.  Shortly after Lear has abdicated his throne, he moves to Goneril’s house with one hundred knights.  This was one of the conditions of the agreement between them.  Here he has a violent confrontation with Goneril about the number of knights he actually needs.  Regan arrives and the love-test scene is ironically parodied; the two daughters haggling over the number of his knights is a grotesque mimicry of the love test.  Lear is cast out into the storm with his Fool and Kent.

In the parallel plot, the Earl of Gloucester has two sons.  One of them, Edmund, is illegitimate.  Edmund deceives Gloucester about Edgar, his real son, and convinces him he is a villain who is ready to murder him.  Edgar is forced to go on the run and play the role of a mad beggar.  He meets with Lear on the heath in the storm and together they reach some profound insights into human nature.  Later on, Gloucester is blinded by Cornwall, the husband of Regan, for helping Lear.  Gloucester becomes filled with despair and wanders to Dover to commit suicide.  He is saved by Edgar who discloses his identity to him shortly before Gloucester dies, presumably from a heart attack.

Lear becomes reconciled with Cordelia who returns to Britain with an army from France to save him.  Both Lear and Cordelia are imprisoned by Edmund who leads the British army against the King of France.  Cordelia is hanged and Lear dies of a broken heart.

Goneril and Regan become consumed by a passionate lust for Edmund and they kill one another.  Edmund is slain by Edgar.  Only Albany, the husband of Regan, and Edgar survive to sustain and restore order to the gory state of Britain at the conclusion.

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THEMES AND ISSUES

Love versus Hatred

King Lear deals with the theme of love versus hatred.  Love, in many of the texts texts on the Comparative Course, is a redemptive force and achieved only through suffering and many trials and tribulations.  Cordelia, Lear’s youngest daughter, suffers the contempt and abuse of her sisters who vie for their father’s power and kingdom.

Lear’s oldest daughters, Goneril and Regan, have the same ignoble and cruel nature as many other characters iwe come across on the Comparative Course.  They are jealous of Cordelia because she is her father’s favourite child, a fact which Lear does not try to conceal.  Cordelia is very forthright in her manner.  She believes in love but not at the cost of truth and decency.  When Lear establishes his love test to divide his kingdom, Cordelia is faced with two choices.  Either she lies to her father and tells him she loves him to the exclusion of everyone and everything in the world, or, she tells him the truth, that she loves him as a daughter should love her father, with duty and respect.

She decides to tell the truth, arguing, ‘I love your Majesty according to my bond no more nor less’ (Act I, Scene I).  The word love is used many times and in different contexts in this first scene.  It is obvious that Goneril and Regan abuse the term and take advantage of their father’s desperate need for love.  Lear’s over-indulgent behaviour to his older daughters make them despise him and think only of themselves and how they might prosper at his demise. So Cordelia is banished by her father for speaking the truth.  She acknowledges that had she ‘a still soliciting eye, and such a tongue’ (Act I, Scene I) as her sisters have, she would have benefited from the division of the kingdom.

It is interesting that Cordelia is forced to uproot herself from her home and seek whatever solace she can with strangers, in a strange environment.  Cordelia is immediately betrothed to France, who instantly recognises her virtues.  His intention is to make her Queen of France and he argues that his love for her encompasses his respect for her actions.  However, Cordelia’s trials are only beginning.  The love she bears for her father will be tested later in the play, as will her compassion and forgiveness.

The evil and cruel natures of Goneril and Regan become obvious as soon as Cordelia leaves the court.  Their language is suddenly cruel and vindictive.  They jeer their father for his approaching senility and feebleness of age.  The significance of Regan’s observation that her father had ‘ever but slenderly known himself’ (Act I, scene I) is now apparent to the reader because of his banishment of Cordelia and Kent.

The sub-plot in King Lear is also important in highlighting this theme and we see the deception of Edmund who takes advantage of his father’s kindness and genuine affection, for his own corrupt desires.  He is incapable of love and his references to love in the play are always debased and carnal.  His character is without any moral code.  His desire is to ultimately destroy whatever is good and pure.  His corruption of the purity of love almost destroys the characters closest to him in the play.

Edmund deceives his father and brother by pretending to be a good son and brother.  He deludes both Goneril and Regan, pretending to love them, but caring about neither.  In fact he enjoys watching these women scheme and plot against each other to win his love.

The marriages of Goneril and Regan are symbolic of their unloving and primitive natures.  Goneril’s husband, Albany, is a weak character at the beginning of the play and seems completely overshadowed by his wife’s hunger for power.  However, as the play progresses, Albany’s function changes from that of mere observer of his wife’s actions to a critic of her unnatural behaviour.  Regan and Cornwall’s marriage is based on Regan’s willingness to be as vicious as her husband.  Her love of power is insatiable and she confuses love with sexual intrigue, which is evident in her behaviour towards Edmund.

The unrestrained passions of Goneril and Regan present fascinating character portrayals for the audience of the play.  Goneril and Regan are presented in highly dramatic sequences on stage.  The visual impact of their actions is overwhelming.

Lear experiences hatred initially in his contact with Goneril.   She is indifferent to him and she instructs her servant Oswald to be as negligent of her father as he wishes.  Lear reacts with a terrible anger.  His language is full of hatred and revenge.  Words like ‘thwart’, ‘torment’, and ‘contempt’ are all used against Goneril.  Lear’s anger springs from his sense of injustice at the treatment meted out to him.  Having given everything to his daughters, they turn on him.  The language and images used by Lear indicate their inability either to give or understand love.  They are described as ‘wolves with flaying nails’, ‘serpents’, ‘foxes’, ‘crabs’, ‘vultures’, ‘a boil’, ‘a plague sore’, and ‘an embossed carbuncle’.  These images deprive the daughters of their humanity but, more importantly, they deny their maternal instincts, traditionally associated with nurturing and love.  The ferocious nature of these images prepares the reader for the cruelty of Goneril, Regan, Cornwall and Edmund later in the play.

Eventually Lear rejects Goneril and Regan and sets out on a journey of self-discovery.  It is vital for Lear that he rejects his two cruel daughters if he is to learn that love cannot be bought, that it is not a commodity.  He is helped to make this discovery by some very noble and good characters such as Cordelia, Kent and Edgar who represent the virtues of love and goodness, loyalty and truth.

Gloucester’s rash banishment of Edgar also clearly illustrates that his understanding of love is as shallow as Lear’s.  This flaw in his character means he is at the mercy of his unscrupulous son, Edmund.  The gouging out of Gloucester’s eyes in Act III, scene vii, is particularly violent, but highly dramatic for the audience.  The blinding scene allows the audience to see, on stage, the distinction between sight and insight, truth and pretence.  Gloucester must lose his sight in order to gain insight and once this has happened he is reunited with Edgar, his legitimate son, who loves him.

The ‘mock trial’ which takes place between Lear, the Fool and Edgar in Act III, Scene vi, is very important in the context of helping us understand and analyse the unnatural actions of Goneril and Regan against their father.  It highlights Lear’s inability to accept that the ‘professed’ love of Goneril and Regan in Act I, Scene I, was mere pretence.  Here we see three human beings at their lowest ebb and this pathetic scene helps us to realise what the world would be like without love.  The ‘mock trial’ also allows Edgar to vent his frustration at the corruption of his treacherous brother Edmund.  It helps to contrast those in the play, who love, as Othello says, ‘not wisely but too well’, with those who debase love and seem to prosper by its abuse.

The return of Kent and particularly of Cordelia is very important for the regeneration of Lear.  Kent, having returned in disguise, to serve Lear, suffers the abuse of Lear’s daughters and servants.  Ultimately, however, it is the return of Cordelia that changes Lear.  He is astounded by her forgiveness and overwhelmed by her love for him.

The change in Lear’s character is obvious.  His hysteria has subsided and he speaks with a voice full of conviction and strength.  The audience is roused by the sense of pathos in his actions and language when Cordelia dies.  Carrying her from the place of execution, he lays her before the audience, trying in vain to find evidence of her breathing.  His grief is evident when he admits to killing the ‘slave’ who hanged her.

With her death, Lear’s only source of love is gone, and unable to bear his separation from her for a second time, he dies.  Interestingly Albany, Goneril’s husband, survives the mayhem and corruption of the evil characters in the play.

The shocking demise of Goneril and Regan emphasises their fiendish nature and the fact that they are the personification of evil as it exists in the world.  They prey upon each other and become victims of their own hatred and greed.  Both must die at the end of the play because, like Edmund and Cornwall, they have nothing to offer humanity.  They love only what benefits themselves and destroys others.

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CULTURAL CONTEXT

Britain and the Medieval Renaissance Court form the primary cultural background of this play.  The play deals with the culture of Kingship and Monarchy at that time.  The characters are drawn from the aristocracy or nobility.  These characters are public figures whose actions and subsequent sufferings become universalised.

The plot of the play deals with inter-family relationships and ensuing intrigue, rivalry and conflict.  Lear makes a fatal error regarding the nature of kingship at the beginning of the play: he believes he can abdicate the duties of King and merely retain, ‘the name and addition of a King’.

Lear has been King of Britain for many years, he has no male heir and so roles change and he hands over his authority to Goneril, Regan and their husbands.  In this act of abdication Lear disrupts the social order and causes a general anarchy in his kingdom.

The blinding of Gloucester is a barbaric act which coexists with the Christian insights expressed by Lear in some of the Storm Scenes and at the conclusion of the play.  In prison with Cordelia he sees them both as ‘God’s spies’, taking upon themselves the mystery of things.

The play refers to particular things such as clothes and courtly manners that are an innate part of this cultural environment.  Lear sheds these symbols of wealth – rich clothes and fine speech – in his movement towards truth.  The play shows the human being reaching truth when these false adornments of culture have been stripped away.  Lear sheds his sanity and descends to a state of physical and emotional nakedness before he is finally clothed in the truth.

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THE GENERAL VISION AND VIEWPOINT

 The term, general vision and viewpoint, may be understood by candidates to mean the broad outlook of the authors of the texts (or of the texts themselves) as interpreted and understood by the reader  – excerpt from Marking Scheme, 2003.

The main thing to remember when discussing this text in relation to others on your Comparative Course is that this is a Shakespearean Tragedy, and hard though it may be to believe, King Lear is the one and only tragic hero of this text.  Traditionally, the conventions of tragedy require certain tragic elements.  Aristotle considered tragedy to be ‘the fall of princes’ and King Lear falls into this category: he is a great king – all kings were great back then – and in the course of the play, because of his foolishness, he makes a great mistake.  Generally, in Shakespearean tragedy, evil is the cause of the catastrophe.  He believed that his tragedies, including King Lear, depicted the struggle between good and evil in the world.

Shakespeare’s tragic heroes all possess definite characteristics.  His tragic hero is always a man of exceptional nature, a great man with a more powerful consciousness, deeper emotions and a more splendid imagination than ordinary men.  He is a sensitive being with a spiritual bias.  He has a divided soul, he is torn by an internal struggle.  However, this tragic hero has some weakness, some flaw that contributes to his downfall.  Aristotle called this internal weakness of the hero the ‘hamartia’, the tragic flaw, an essential element in tragedy.  Lear’s flaw is his gullibility and his pride.  He succumbs to this powerful failing in his nature and is destroyed by it.  His ambition pushes him into a sequence of action which inevitably leads to his death.  Lear attempts the impossible, to give up his kingship and yet he tries to retain the trappings of power, his retinue of knights, the pomp and ceremony that goes with majesty.  However, the inevitable consequences of his actions work themselves out and the result is tragedy.

Aristotle’s criterion for good tragedy was that the members of the audience should experience ‘catharsis’, that is, pity and terror for the tragic hero.  The sensitive, conscience-stricken, tortured King Lear we are introduced to on the heath inspires pity, and we do leave the theatre terrified at the tragic results of Lear’s actions.

Shakespeare, in King Lear and Macbeth and Hamlet, does a wonderful balancing act between the audience having sympathy for the tragic hero while also recognising the reality that evil must be destroyed and good must triumph in the end and order must be restored to the kingdom.

This, therefore, was Shakespeare’s vision for this and all his other great tragedies.  It doesn’t  always sit well with modern audiences because we have differing definitions for ‘heroes’ and indeed for ‘tragedy’ as well.

 King Lear (8)

 

LITERARY GENRE

As we have already stated above, King Lear is a Shakespearean tragedy.  The general sequence of a tragic work is the story of a hero who is endowed with a fatal flaw.  This flaw causes suffering, the loss of everything and finally death.

In the context of this play, Lear’s main flaw consists of an overbearing pride and blindness to human nature.  Shortly after he has abdicated his kingship he suffers a violent confrontation with Goneril and Regan and he is forced to accept their terms or face humiliation and poverty out on the heath.

In an extreme state of degradation and suffering throughout the storm scenes he learns the meaning of life and grows in humility and self-knowledge.  All of this occurs with the help of his Fool who plays a key role here.

Likewise Gloucester is blind to the reality of human nature and fails to see through the wickedness of his son Edmund.  Ironically it is only when he is physically blinded that he attains a real insight into the truth of things.  Both characters acknowledge their earlier flaws and both develop and learn to see the real truth about people and about themselves.

THE STRUCTURE OF THE PLAY

This play is made up of two plots which echo one another in theme – we get two plays for the price of one!.  The deliberate parallels that are set up between the two plots add to their realism, by giving credibility to a play where the characters and events would be otherwise incredible.  Another effect of this deliberate repetition is to universalise and broaden such themes as filial ingratitude and evil.

The story and theme of the sub-plot is repeated in the main plot.  Two credulous fathers are betrayed by selfish and unscrupulous children.  Both are victims of false appearance.  Both are weak, gullible and poor judges of character.  Both lack sound judgement, both are old men.  The Fool teaches Lear while Edgar teaches Gloucester.

The Fool plays a central role in the structure of the play.  This role is primarily paradoxical – the supposedly wise King is being taught lessons of wisdom and folly by a fool.  We see this mainly in the storm scenes.  He is a foil for Lear and also a form of relief.  He counters Lear’s madness and is used almost like a chorus as he harps all the time on Lear’s transgressions.  So, his role is a curious mixture of faithful service and severe condemnation.  He offers relief to the gloom of the tragedy.

The Fool represents the voice of reality for Lear.  The Fool appears in Act I, Scene iv when Kent has just manifested his loyalty for Lear by attacking Oswald, Goneril’s cunning servant.  Lear is about to pay Kent for his action when the Fool enters and mockingly offers Kent his coxcomb.  The implication here is that Lear is a fool if he thinks he can repay people with money now that he has handed over everything to his wicked children.  The play is full of comments like this, where the Fool mocks Lear’s self-deceit, and essential blindness to human nature.  The Fool is not only Lear’s teacher but he echoes Lear’s conscience.  It is significant that Lear is given few soliloquies in the play; the implication here could be that the Fool articulates all his insights.

The relationship between Lear and his Fool is part of the tragic movement of the play; the movement downwards towards that ultimate exposure and defeat when the King is degraded to the status of the meanest of his servants.  We watch the royal sufferer being progressively stripped, first of his extraordinary power, then of ordinary human dignity, then of the very necessities of life where he is more helpless and abject than any animal.  However, there is a more dreadful consummation than this reduction to physical nakedness.  Lear hardly feels the storm because he is struggling to maintain his mental integrity, his knowledge and his reason which for him are the essential marks of humanity itself.  From the time when his agony begins and he feels his sanity threatened, he gradually becomes aware of the suffering of others: ‘Poor Fool I have one part of my heart that’s sorry for thee yet’.

In the role of the Fool we are confronted with the paradoxical reversal of wisdom and folly.  At the beginning of the play Lear and Gloucester are both blind fools.  When Lear loses his sanity his vision is enlarged; as his wits begin to leave him he begins to see the truth about himself; when they are wholly gone he begins to have spasmodic flashes of insight in which he sees the truth about the world.  The Fool prophetically exclaims that Lear would make a good Fool.  When he loses everything – his kingdom, his sanity, his honour, when he becomes an outcast from society – he attains truth.

In the hour of Lear’s helplessness during the storm on the heath, King and Fool, master and slave, become something different – the bond between them grows deeper.  In the process of madness we become aware of a relationship comprised of opposites – that of wise man and fool.  The essence of this relationship consists in a reversal of accepted values: the supposedly wise man of the opening scenes, the Lear who was in a position to have his slave whipped and exercise his own will without contradiction, has become the fool.  Through his behaviour and language, the Fool offers advice all of which is based on a practical wisdom.  The Fool, therefore, is an all-powerful auxiliary for both the main plot and the sub-plot.

When the Fool leaves the play in the last storm scene, Act IV, Scene vi, we can assume that Lear has grown in moral awareness and it remains for him to be reconciled with Cordelia.

The soliloquy is a fundamental part of the structure of a Shakespearean tragedy.  Shakespeare uses both the public and the private soliloquy in his plays and each type has a different function.  Much of Lear’s soliloquies are public and in them he articulates his condemnation of humankind.  In the Storm Scene, Act III, Scene iv, he becomes aware for the first time in his life of the full reality of poverty within his kingdom, and acknowledges that he has done nothing to remedy the situation.  Likewise Edgar, Edmund and Kent use the public soliloquy to give reasons for the way they are acting.  Edmund is the character who has the most soliloquies and these serve to indicate how he will manipulate events and use opportunities to his own advantage.  All of his soliloquies show him to be exceptionally intelligent, cynical and unprincipled.  Edgar’s three soliloquies serve different functions.  He gives us an insight into the quality of life in the kingdom as it existed under Lear, the Bedlam Beggar who was pelted in the villages and looked upon as mad.  He also plays the role of moraliser or preacher of good and evil in his soliloquies.

THE STYLE OF THE PLAY

LANGUAGE IMAGERY: Shakespeare’s style is richly poetic.  In his plays the important characters speak in verse, while the minor characters use prose.  Language and imagery become an avenue of understanding in the plays of Shakespeare.  A wide variety of images and language patterns are used, largely to communicate the central message and themes of the playwright.

NATURE AND STORM SCENES:  The storm scenes are symbolic of moral discord.  They are five in total.  The storm dovetails personal conflict and external convulsion well.  The storm which has broken out in Lear’s mind is admirably fused with the description of the warring elements.   The external storm is itself a projection of his inner state which is expressed in the form of a single poetic reality.  Throughout the storm scenes Lear bears the main weight of suffering.  He is surrounded by human beings who are each used in a different way to illustrate and illuminate some aspect of his central character.  The Fool, Kent and Edgar bear some of his tragic burden: they show an insight into part of his tragic situation.  Gloucester also shows a parallel fate in his suffering and fall in fortunes.  During the storm, there is a profound sense of man’s infirmity, set against the power and violence of the elements.

It is within the Storm Scenes, in the company of three different types of mad people, that Lear penetrates through to the essential truth of human nature when it is stripped of the false trappings of sophistication.  In the half-naked Edgar he finds the image of ‘Unaccommodated man’.

Certainly, the Storm Scenes are the most dramatic in the play.  Here, the Fool leaves the play and Lear goes mad.  The paradox of the play ‘reason in madness’ is enacted in the storm scenes.

Gloucester’s first stage in moral growth occurs when he goes out into the storm to offer comfort and consolation to Lear.  It is this action which costs him his eyes.

ANIMAL OR BESTIAL IMAGERY:  There is the recurrent idea in the play of animals preying upon one another like monsters of the deep.  The animal or bestial imagery points us to the reality of human beings exploiting and destroying another for their own wicked ends.

Man and woman are continually referred to as beasts or monsters.  Goneril is referred to as ‘a sea monster’, ‘a serpent’, ‘a wolf’, ‘a vulture’, ‘a kite’.  In act III, Scene iv, Lear refers to the sisters as ‘pelican daughters’ who are feeding on their father’s blood.  Edgar calls his brother a ‘toad spotted villain’.

All this type of imagery suggests that when possessed by evil humans lose all trace of their humanity and become as beasts.

IMAGES OF SIGHT AND BLINDNESS: Much of the symbolism or imagery reflect two of the central ideas in the play – sight and blindness.  Since both protagonists begin at a stage of moral blindness with regard to the true nature of their children and of human nature in general, this type of imagery plays a hugely symbolic role in the play.

Shakespeare makes use of irony to dramatise the relationship between moral and physical blindness.  Irony serves several functions in the play.  It illustrates the profound discrepancy between the real nature of things and the mere appearance.  Irony is used to indicate blindness in characters.  Certain characters such as Gloucester, Lear and Edgar are essentially blind to the truth about themselves and others.  So as Lear banishes Kent, his loyal servant and the only person who will tell him the truth, he ironically prays to Apollo, the god of light.

Edmund uses a false letter to frame his brother, then adopts the role of confidante to Edgar by advising him to stay out of Gloucester’s way.  Edgar is blind to the existence of evil and corruption in nature and particularly in his brother Edmund’s nature and so we hear him ironically telling Edmund how, ‘Some villain has done me wrong’ (Act I, Scene ii).

The play is full of ironic reversals: Gloucester gains full insight only after he has been physically blinded; Lear, King of Britain, learns his wisest lessons on human nature and on life, in the context of extreme degradation and in the company of The Fool.

Irony functions as a moral commentary on the wicked characters and is another means of illustrating in a graphic manner the profoundly destructive quality of evil.

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