Some Central Themes in Shakespeare’s King Lear

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The gods in King Lear

King Lear is set in England – an England before history, a country of swirling mists and violent tempests where ancient gods hold sway. It has been sometimes described as a Christian play with a pagan setting.  For us Irish, even the name Lear/Lir conjures up legendary tales from Irish mythology.  The Children of Lir, for instance, is a tale from the early Christian period that mixes magical elements such as druidic wands and spells with a Christian message of faith bringing freedom from suffering.  This is very similar to the underlying theme in Shakespeare’s King Lear.

We also need to be aware of the historical events taking place in England around 1605 when this play was written.  Queen Elizabeth I had died in 1603 without a direct heir to the throne.  She was succeeded by James VI of Scotland who later became James I of England, Scotland and Ireland – the first early version of the United Kingdom.  Shakespeare’s company was known as The King’s Men and many of the plays were produced with a Royal Command Performance in mind.  It is interesting that Macbeth – set in Scotland – was first performed in 1606 for the same monarch.

Even a casual reader of King Lear is bound to notice the frequency with which the gods are invoked or discussed by many of the characters in the play.  More striking perhaps, is the great variety of distinct points of view on the gods and their dealings with men expressed from beginning to end of the play.  Some of these are merely passing references, as, for example, Albany’s amazed reaction to Lear’s behaviour towards Goneril: ‘Now gods that we adore, whereof comes this?’.  Others are obviously ironic or insincere, as when Edmund, in conversation with Gloucester, claims that he tried to dissuade Edgar from his murderous intent by telling him that ‘the revenging gods / Against parricides did all their thunders bend’; or when Regan invokes ‘the blest gods’ in response to Lear’s curses.  But such casual references are rare enough: elsewhere, whenever the gods are mentioned, the tone is almost invariably serious, betraying the concern of the speakers with the nature and attributes of the ultimate Power, and their awareness of the problems of affirming cosmic justice in the face of the evil and suffering so rife in their universe.

Many commentators have remarked on the number of conflicting theories on the nature and disposition of the gods that are advanced by the different characters, sometimes indeed, by the same character, during the course of the play.  Almost every major point of view is expressed.  Gloucester in his despair sees men as the victims of a capricious and malevolent divinity: ‘As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods’.  At other times, particularly after suffering has awakened his religious sense, he addresses heartfelt prayers to the ‘ever-gentle gods’ and speaks feelingly of ‘the bounty and the benison of heaven’.  Edgar pictures the gods as dispensers of a merely retributive justice:

The gods are just and of our pleasant vices

Make instruments to plague us.

But his other, and more characteristic, religious utterances reveal a deep faith in supernatural goodness, and his view of the gods is best seen in his encouraging words to Gloucester after he has saved him from suicide:

                                                Therefore, thou happy father,

Think that the clearest gods, who make them honours

Of men’s impossibilities, have preserved thee.

The speeches of the other characters also help to enlarge and diversify the range of references about the gods.  When Kent, who normally expresses faith in the just dealings of the heavenly powers, is momentarily overwhelmed by the apparent triumph of wickedness and injustice in the play and dismayed by the unnatural dealings of Lear’s daughters, he falls back on an astrological determinism, ‘It is the stars’, he cries, ‘the stars above us govern our conditions’.  Edmund’s deity is a nature-goddess while Lear appeals to primitive magic when he disinherits Cordelia ‘by the sacred radiance of the sun / The mysteries of Hecate and the night’, and he calls on Nature, his ‘dear goddess’ to curse Goneril, as if he believes that the heavens are at the service of man’s evil whims.  In his great speech on the heath (III, iv, 28ff), he implies that the wretched condition of the poor is an indictment of divine justice.  By exposing himself to feel what naked wretches feel, and by sharing his superfluous goods among them, he hopes to ‘show the heavens more just’.

For many students of the play, Gloucester’s cry of despair, ‘As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods / They kill us for their sport.’, strikes the keynote of the play and sums up its spirit.  There is indeed much in the play to justify this point of view.  Time after time Shakespeare seems to underline the futility of looking to the heavenly powers for help, pity or the alleviation of suffering.  He throws into the sharpest possible relief the bitter and ironic contrast between the seemingly justifiable aspirations of men, so often nourished by belief in divine goodness, and the apparent indifference and blindness of the gods to even their most urgent and insistent demands.  Some of the juxtapositions contrived by Shakespeare seem to make a mockery of prayer and faith in providential justice.  Lear invokes the heavens against the ingratitude of his daughters and begs them to make his cause their cause, to come down and take his part, but the heavens are silent and Regan adds to his misery by demanding that he dismiss half his train.  His next prayer, ‘You see me here you gods, a poor old man’ is answered by the sound of the approaching storm, and soon after, the elements let fall their ‘horrible pleasure’ and join with his two evil daughters in punishing ‘a poor, infirm, weak and despised old man’.

Edgar on the heath thinks that ‘the worst returns to laughter’: he is immediately confronted with the bleeding face of his blinded father.  Just before the battle he urges Gloucester to pray that the right may thrive, and assures him ‘If ever I return to you again I’ll bring you comfort’.  He returns only to lead his father away; his prayers have not been answered: ‘King Lear hath lost, he and his daughter ta’en’.  The most dreadful example is reserved for the last scene.  Edmund has repented.  He reveals his plan to have Cordelia murdered in prison, and Edgar hastens to save her life.  Albany’s prayer, ‘the gods defend her’ is at once followed by the stark stage-direction: Enter Lear, with Cordelia dead in his arms.  By means of deliberate effects like these, the play seems to suggest that there is no basis for faith in heavenly justice or benevolence, that the Powers who control the universe are either hostile or indifferent to the good of man.

The idea of universal justice is most sharply challenged by the ending of this play.  The wasteful deaths of Lear and Cordelia following their long exposure to suffering and torture inevitably make us wonder what conception of the universe caused Shakespeare to impose so ‘cheerless, dark and deadly’ an ending on a play which, in the Fourth Act, seemed to be heading to a reasonably happy ending  True enough, Lear has sinned, but he is, in his own words, ‘more sinned against than sinning’, and the punishment he is made to undergo seems absurdly disproportionate to his original fault.  It is not enough that he should humbly repent and willingly renounce the name and the trappings of a king for life in prison with Cordelia, that his pride should be broken and he is driven to madness but also during his last moments on earth he must endure the overwhelming sorrow of Cordelia’s death.  This grim ending has horrified many critics.  Samuel Johnson rebuked Shakespeare for having ‘suffered the virtue of Cordelia to perish in a just cause, contrary to our natural ideas of justice, and to the hope of the reader’.  There are those who argue that the ending in King Lear destroys any basis for faith in a god or gods, and quenches the notion that in our universe the good thrive and the wicked will be eventually punished.

This pessimistic view of the Lear universe is not universally held.  There are those who argue, that, far from being a bitter indictment of cosmic justice and of providence, the play offers a profoundly Christian comment on the dealings of providence with men – that it is, in fact, a Christian play about a pagan world.  These critics point to the fact that the play’s attitude toward human suffering is, in fact, a Christian one.  It has always been part of Christian teaching that man is perfected through suffering and the image of the Cross is central to this idea.  Christians believe that any painful experience is good when it leads the sufferer, however unwillingly at first, along the path of righteousness and humility; that, in fact, suffering leads to redemption and enlightenment as is the case with Lear and Gloucester in the play.

The failure of ‘the gods’ to answer many of the prayers addressed to them throughout the course of the action has been interpreted by some critics as evidence that Shakespeare pictured the Lear universe as one in which the gods are indifferent to man’s needs.  Here, however, it is possible to find the values of the play are very compatible with those of traditional Christianity.  With regard to prayer, it seems to make the point, one which very few Christian scholars would disagree with, that prayers are sometimes answered as the suppliant wishes, but that it is often otherwise, that the answer can take a totally unexpected form, or that no direct answer may be forthcoming.  At the end of the blinding scene (III, vii) the Third Servant prays for Gloucester: ‘Now Heaven help him’.  His prayer is answered.  Almost at once we see him reunited with Edgar, who saves him from despair and suicide and restores a measure of happiness to his tortured mind.  On the other hand, when Lear prays that the vengeance of heaven may fall upon the head of Goneril, his demand recoils upon himself, and he becomes the victim of the elements during the storm.  And there is no answer to Albany’s prayer that Cordelia’s life may be spared.

Edgar’s is perhaps the best expression of the general attitude of the play towards the gods.  As R.B. Heilman points out, he consistently shows his faith in human justice, but he ‘does not presumptuously expect divinity to be a magical servant’.  With regard to Lear’s pleadings, the same critic argues that in the scheme of things as Shakespeare has here conceived it, he can expect justice, but he cannot dictate terms.  Samuel Johnson, dissatisfied as he was with Shakespeare’s decision to allow Cordelia to die in spite of the justice of her cause, nevertheless believed that the play convincingly exposed the self-destructive and abnormal nature of evil.

What the play seems to be saying to us concerning cosmic justice is not that ‘the gods’ wait for man to fall into the most trivial error in order to punish him, but that once man has wilfully embraced a wrong course of action, he is liable to set in motion a long train of disasters over which he has little control.  There is also the notion that it is in the nature of evil to spread its influence far and with fearful rapidity, visiting both good and bad with misery and ruin, and that once the evil has been let loose man has no control over the consequences. Furthermore, the sufferers in the Lear universe cannot expect the gods to grant them or their fellows immunity from further suffering, as soon as they have repented, and it is part of the order of things in that universe that individual evil can never remain individual.  The main point to be made about the idea of cosmic justice as seen in King Lear is that it is quite distinct from the poetic justice that so many critics seem to think that Shakespeare should have preserved.  Poetic justice ensures that rewards and punishments are carefully distributed and bear as exact a relationship as possible to the nature of the deed.  King Lear makes no attempt to establish such a relationship.  It suggests, instead, that the notion of a purely retributive justice is one of mankind’s illusions, and that although evil may be ultimately self-destroying, being good and virtuous provide us with few guarantees or protection against evil in the world.

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Nature and its Meaning in King Lear

Shakespeare often focuses on major philosophical issues in his tragedies.  For example, the famous critic and scholar, Wilson Knight, declares that ‘the theme of Hamlet is death’.  However, no Shakespearean play is so consistently devoted to a single central idea as King Lear is to the exploration of the meaning of the concept of ‘Nature’.  The play explores the idea of human nature, the natural world, what is natural and unnatural, and the many references to monsters and monstrous deeds, and so on, are numerous and occur throughout the play.

The events of the play and the behaviour of most of the character’s underline Shakespeare’s preoccupation with the idea.  Lear disowns his one loyal and loving daughter in favour of two who will turn savagely on him.  Gloucester, with that deep irony so characteristic of almost every major statement of its kind in the play, calls the utterly treacherous Edmund his ‘loyal and natural boy’, and disowns his totally devoted son Edgar.  Each parent severs the bond of nature with animal ferocity, then, with grim irony, invokes nature as a reason for doing so.  Lear’s argument: Cordelia is a wretch whom nature is ashamed ‘Almost to acknowledge hers’; Gloucester’s: Edgar is ‘an unnatural, detested, brutish villain: Worse than brutish’.

Lear and Gloucester, in Shakespeare’s scheme of things, commit mortal sins against nature, and the rest of the play is mainly concerned with the awful revenge that nature will take on the two offenders, who act from brute instinct and in blindness.  But Lear and Gloucester, however we may weigh their moral guilt, will each pay a price that bears little proportion to the admitted evil of their parallel actions.

Each will be largely cut off from the kindness, generosity and protection which human beings naturally afford each other.  They will be forced to wander in a storm, one of the great Shakespearean symbols of disorder.  They will learn the lessons of their folly through pain and suffering.  Gloucester, paradoxically, must be blinded in order to see; Lear, paradoxically, must be driven to madness to achieve an understanding of himself and his acts.

The following are some examples of the many and varied aspects of the term ‘Nature’ as seen in the play:

  • Allow not nature more than nature needs

Man’s life is cheap as beasts. (II, iv, 265)

Here nature means the primitive condition of mankind before civilisation.

  • Thou has one daughter

Who redeems nature from the general curse

Which twain have brought her to (IV, vi, 210)

Here we have the idea of an originally innocent nature before the Fall of Adam and Eve which requires a redemption.

  • That nature, which contemns in the origin

Cannot be bordered certain in itself (IV, ii, 32)

Nature here is used to define the bond between child and parent.  Goneril’s unnatural treatment of her father involves the breaking of this bond.  Albany warns Goneril that in so doing she will, like a branch severed from a tree, ‘wither and come to deadly use’.

  • The characters in the play embody quite different conceptions of the meaning of nature. Cordelia represents an ideal: human kindness, the sense of a close kinship between human beings.  Her sisters and Edmund see Nature as red in tooth and claw, and all men, irrespective of family ties, at war with others for personal advantage.

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The Death of Lear

What is Lear’s state of mind at the moment of his death?  The answer we give depends on whether we believe Shakespeare meant the play to close on a bleak and cheerless note or whether (if Lear is seen to die happy if deluded) that he intended the play to end on a more hopeful note.  The crucial lines are these:

Do you see this? Look on her, look, her lips.

Look there, look there. (V, iii, 312-3)

A. C. Bradley, the great Shakespearean scholar, suggests that Lear dies of joy, believing Cordelia to be still alive. Bradley pointed out that when Lear was still in doubt as to whether she was alive or dead he declared:

                                                She lives!  If it be so

Its is a chance which does redeem all sorrows

That ever I have felt.

If, in other words, she was still alive, this would counterbalance for him all the miseries he had endured up to this.  Bradley distinguished between what the reader must feel as he watches Lear’s pathetic deception and what the deluded Lear himself is experiencing:

To us, perhaps, the knowledge that he is deceived may have a culmination of pain, but if it brings only that, I believe we are false to Shakespeare, and it seems almost beyond question that any actor is false to the text who does not attempt to express in Lear’s last accents and gestures and look, an unbearable joy (Shakespearean Tragedy).

This analysis has often been criticised as being too sentimental, but it has two fairly strong supports.  One is the fact that in Shakespeare’s source for the play, Philip Sidney’s Arcadia, Lear’s heart is described as being ‘stretched so far beyond his limits with this excess of comfort’.  The other is that we are almost certainly intended to see Gloucester’s last moments as providing a parallel to Lear’s, all their other major experiences being parallel.  And here is how Gloucester dies;

                                                His flawed heart

Twixt two extremes of passion, joy and grief,

Burst smilingly (V, iii, 196).

In recent times, strong voices have been raised against the view that joy is the keynote of Lear’s departure from this life.  One point that should be borne in mind is that Lear’s illusion that Cordelia still lives recurs three of four times in the last scene:

She’s dead as earth.  Lend me a looking glass.

If that her breath will mist or stain the stone,

Why then, she lives….

Here there is a heart-breaking tension in Lear between an absolute knowledge that Cordelia is dead, and an absolute inability to accept it.  When his test with the looking-glass fails, he snatches a feather and tries a second test:

This feather stirs; she lives!  If it be so,

It is a chance which does redeem all sorrows

That ever I have felt…

This effort, like the last one, fails.  Then again he tries to prove that she is alive by putting his ear to her lips in the hope that she might be speaking:

Cordelia, Cordelia, stay a little.  Ha,

What is’t thou sayest?  Her voice was ever soft.

Gentle, and low – an excellent thing in woman …

He dies vainly seeking (or thinking he finds) life in her lips (‘Look there, look there’).  What comfort can be extracted from the manner of his death?    It might well be argued in response to Bradley that, given the cycle of despair, insanity and the illusion of hope, it hardly matters very much at what point of it Lear expires.  One bleaker version is that of J. Stampfer, who argues that,

Gloucester died between extremes of joy and grief, at the knowledge that his son was miraculously preserved.  Lear between extremes of illusion and truth, ecstasy and the blackest despair, at the knowledge that his daughter was needlessly butchered.  Gloucester’s heart burst smilingly at his reunion with Edgar; Lear’s, we are driven to conclude, burst in the purest agony at his eternal separation from Cordelia (Shakespeare Survey, 1960, p.4).

Whatever the relative merits of the views expressed by Bradley and Stampfer, it is perhaps going too far to say that at the moment of Lear’s death, joy is in equal balance with grief.  What is safe to say is that Lear’s heart breaks.  The words of Kent make this clear (‘Break heart, I prithee break’).  It is also clear that we are meant to see his death as the culmination of an ordeal of torment renewed beyond reasonable endurance.  Again Kent is our authority:

Vex not his ghost.  O, let him pass! He hates him

That would upon the rack of this rough world

Stretch him out longer.

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King Lear: The Spirit of the Play

When one tries to describe one’s overall impression of King Lear, its spirit, its overall mood, one can easily fall into the trap of imposing a pattern based on one’s own preferences and attitudes.  Many critics have seen, and described, King Lear as the embodiment of utter despair, chaos and cynicism.  Others see it as Shakespeare’s endorsement of love as the supreme and absolute human value.  Both these extreme views fail to do justice to the range of issues so deeply touched on by Shakespeare in this tragedy.

The spirit of the play cannot be wholly pessimistic.  At play’s end, Lear has been reconciled to Cordelia and Gloucester to Edgar.  Evil, as represented by the wicked quartet, Edmund, Cornwall, Goneril and Regan, has prospered for a while, taken possession of the Lear universe, caused men to descend to sheer bestiality, but has, by the close, destroyed itself.  But is it too much to say that good has enjoyed a corresponding triumph?  The ‘good’ characters, Lear, Cordelia, Edgar, Gloucester, Kent, must suffer, and even when their sufferings seem no longer supportable suffer again until the two chief characters die in harrowing circumstances.

Where, then, do we look for an ‘optimistic’ note in King Lear? It is easy, after all, to define the pessimistic ones: the forces of suffering and evil have possessed the play so long, and have so steadily enjoyed their various triumphs, that it may seem false to the overall tone of the play to underline the less despairing indications that offer themselves, if even tentatively, and almost apologetically.  It may be too much to claim that Lear’s reunion with Cordelia is the final seal on the salvation he has begun to achieve through suffering and deprivation.  His real salvation is, perhaps, a more prosaic one: release at last from the torture of his life.  The major theme of the play is what men must endure at the hands of those forces, inner and outer, which govern the courses of their lives.  The play shows these forces as capable of almost continuous cruelty and torment.  But it also sounds another note.  The entire course of events in King Lear suggests that the forces of life perform another function.  John Holloway, in his excellent study, puts the matter as follows:

To follow the master, to sustain the state, top bless one’s child, to succour the aged and one’s parents – the idea of being brought back to rectitude is what the play ends with.  These are the things which it falls to living men to do; and if the play advances appositive, I think it is that when men turn away from how they should live there are forces in life which constrain them to return.  If anything rules creation, it is (though only, as it were, by a hairsbreadth) simply rule itself.  What order restores, is order.  Men tangle their lives; life, at a price, is self-untangling at last (The Story of the Night).

 Faced with the overwhelming depravity of the four chief villains, and the relative success of their schemes, it is easy to lose sight of the depth of human goodness and decency in King Lear.  Kent and the Fool remain loyal to Lear to the end; Albany grows in moral stature as the plot develops; Edgar at times reaches heights of selfless perfection.  Lear learns to recognise goodness and love for what they are, and his gratitude at this revelation is one of the more memorable things in the play.    It is true that the lessons learned by Lear and Gloucester have involved a huge amount of suffering, and a terrible waste, a cosmic upheaval.  But this in itself may be seen as offering grounds for optimism about man’s place in the overall scheme of things.  That the forces of life and nature should so disarrange themselves to teach two old men how to live is powerful testimony to the fundamental worth of human beings.  Lear recognises this.  Even the Supreme Powers, he feels, witness the events in which he is the central figure with awe and reverence:

Upon such sacrifices, my Cordelia,

The gods themselves throw incense …

 

 

As I pointed out earlier, King Lear is set in England – an England before history, a country of swirling mists and violent tempests where ancient gods hold sway.  This new cinematic adaptation of the play places it at some unknown time in the future – although recent political events in Westminster suggest that the United Kingdom may not be united for much longer!  Ironically, this was one of the major reasons why Shakespeare gave us the great tragedies – he was saying to his audience: ‘This is what happens when you mess with order – do not go there!’.  Four hundred years later ……. the Bard is still relevant!  Study well!

 

Works Cited

Bradley, A.C., Shakespearean Tragedy. New York: Meridian Books, 1955.

Granville Barker, Harley. Prefaces to Shakespeare, Vol 2. King Lear, Cymbeline, Julius Caesar.  Atlantic Publishers and Distributors (P) Ltd, 2006.

Heilman, R.B., This Great Stage: Structure in King Lear. Louisiana State University. 1948.

Holloway, John.  The Story of the Night: Studies in Shakespeare’s Major Tragedies. Routledge: London and New York. 1961 (Reprinted 2005).

Murray, Patrick. King Lear in Inscapes published by The Educational Company of Ireland. 1980

Schucking, Levin L., Character Problems in Shakespeare’s Plays: A Guide to the Better Understanding of the Dramatist.  First published by George G. Harrap in July 1922.

Spurgeon, Caroline F. E., Shakespeare’s Imagery and What It Tells Us, Cambridge Univesity Press, 1935.

Stampfer, J., The Catharsis of King Lear’ in Shakespeare Survey 13, Cambridge, 1960

Further Reading

You might also like to read my ‘Single Text Study Notes on King Lear’ here.

Also, you might like to have a look at ‘Image Patterns in King Lear’ here.

Single Text Study Notes on ‘King Lear’

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Characters and Themes in ‘King Lear’

 

These notes are an effort to give you some extra food for thought in your preparation for your Single Text question in June.  The focus of your study should be on character, theme and image patterns.  As far as Shakespeare was concerned the most important character in the play is Lear himself.  We must keep this in mind when making our preparations.  You will, in effect, have to talk about Lear and his relationships with all the other characters in the play.  That is to say, you cannot discuss the character of Cordelia, or Gloucester, or Kent or the Fool without discussing their relationship to Lear.

You will also have to have some understanding of what is meant when we talk of Shakespearean Tragedy.  You might like to read my short explanation of the term here.

Most of Shakespeare’s tragedies are set abroad – Hamlet in Denmark, Othello in Venice and Cyprus, Macbeth in Scotland, Coriolanus in Rome, etc.  Some critics say that the reason for this ploy was because he was often dealing with very serious matters such as murder, even the murder of kings and queens.   He didn’t want to be seen to be inciting people to rise up against his main benefactor, Queen Elizabeth or King James I.  However, King Lear is set in England – an England of swirling mists and violent tempests, and it has been sometimes described as a Christian play with a pagan setting. 

Interestingly, the underlying theme in King Lear, like the ongoing, excruciating Brexit saga, is of a United Kingdom being divided up to satisfy the egotistical whim of an ageing monarch.  Fintan O’Toole, writing in an Irish Times opinion piece on Saturday 7th September, 2019 compares the Brexit goings-on in Westminster with the tragedy of King Lear. He says that recently ‘a little bit of King Lear was playing out in the House of Commons’ and that some of the scenes being acted out and relayed to us from Westminster and its environs even resembled some of the madness scenes in Lear:

The play, after all, is about the collapse of political authority in Britain, caused by nothing more than a caprice (a whim).  It shows the potentially terrible consequences of political self-indulgence.

 So, there you have positive proof if it was needed, that this Single Text you are studying this year is as relevant now as it was in 1605!

 

 

King Lear (4)
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The Main Characters in King Lear

Lear

The best point about Shakespeare’s extraordinary achievement in presenting Lear is that made by Granville-Barker in his fine preface to the play:

For this massive fortress of pride which calls itself Lear, for any old man indeed of eighty or upwards, there could be no dramatic course but declension (to go downhill, to decline, to deteriorate).  Who would ever think of developing, or expanding, a character from such overwhelming beginnings? Yet this is what Shakespeare does (in King Lear).

Lear indeed begins as an almost superhuman figure, marking out the map with the ponderous gestures of some god, and making his pronouncements with godlike authority and power:

Come not between the dragon and his wrath …

The bow is bent and drawn, make from the shaft …

Nothing: I have sworn; I am firm …

The most obvious feature of Lear’s character, and the dominant one from the beginning is his arrogance, which everybody agrees, has been nourished by a long career of absolute power.  (You might, if you find yourself with a minute to spare, tune in to Sky News and their minute-by-minute coverage of Brexit at Westminster and see if you can identify any modern-day proponents of this self-same arrogance!).  Like Boris, the slightest opposition makes Lear fly into a towering rage.  Those who question his pettiest whim, or dispute his judgments, are exposed to incredible retaliation.  It is not enough for Lear to banish Kent: he also threatens him with capital punishment.  Not only does he withdraw his favour from Cordelia: he treats her as if he has never known her: she is now ‘new adopted to our hate’.  These traits are still evident after he has abdicated and when he abandons himself to the ‘charity’ of Goneril and Regan.  Indeed, if anything, his unpredictability and tempers worsen.  He is remarkable at this stage for his impatience, his lack of self-control, his arrogance and mood swings.  Even faithful followers like the Fool and Kent are treated very poorly; he threatens the Fool and makes little of Kent’s loyalty and faithfulness.  Those who provoke his anger fare even worse.  He strikes Goneril’s gentleman and insults Oswald.  His curses on Goneril are fearsome.  After Regan has disappointed him, he is seized by a terrible frenzy of passion which finds its outlet in a kind of madness.

Yet, even though we must always bear in mind that Lear is our tragic hero, no account that fails to point out these repellent aspects of his character can do justice to the portrait that Shakespeare wants to put before us.  Some commentators are content to see him almost exclusively as a noble, suffering old man cruelly treated by his daughters.  The other side of Lear is at least half the truth.  Shakespeare goes to considerable rounds to underline his brutality, bitterness, fierceness, egotism, self-pity and fickleness.  There is also the fact that he often tends to desire vengeance on all those (including his daughters) who injure or annoy him.  It is interesting to notice that, early in the play, Shakespeare allows Goneril and Regan to comment on Lear’s hotheadedness, on the fact that ‘the best and soundest of his time hath been but rash’.  They also feel that age has further weakened his already poor judgement and that his angry nature can break out in ‘inconstant starts’.  This is the one instance (and the only one) where we see things from their point of view.

It is important to bear in mind, however, that the entire tendency of the play is to cause the reader or spectator to discount Lear’s failings and to regard him with compassion, sympathy and understanding.  One major factor in Shakespeare’s presentation of Lear is that all the characters we admire look on his situation from his point of view, and this is clearly what Shakespeare wants us to do also.  He is, after all, the tragic hero and Shakespeare wants us to view Lear very much as a man ‘more sinned against than sinning’.  In a way, Lear’s faults and failings are not the things we are invited to concentrate on.  Shakespeare is concerned less with the personal weaknesses and shortcomings of his main character than with the monstrous insult offered by Goneril and Regan and their allies to some of the most sacred values of human beings: fatherhood, old age and kingship.  The German critic Levin Schucking makes this essential point about this aspect of Shakespeare’s presentation of Lear as tragic hero:

Lear … appears like an old, gnarled, stubborn oak tree, vigorously resisting the tempest, unyielding, majestic, deep-rooted, upheld only by its own strength, and towering above all its fellows.  His weakness may almost be said to be the necessary concomitants of his strong qualities.  His vindictiveness appears to be the result of his strength; his savage maledictions seem due to his fiery temperament.  He is meant to be seen as a sublime and truly noble figure.

Many critics and scholars have found the real heart of the play, its essential ‘meaning’, in Lear’s movement from pride, egotism and spiritual blindness to understanding, insight and love.  This is often seen as a process of purification, by means of which, through suffering, Lear is led out of his severely limited vision into a proper recognition of the true values of life.  Through the course of his misery, Lear achieves a degree of spiritual apprehension and insight which he never achieved in the years of his prosperity.  At the outset, we see him as a proud and angry old man for whom love is merely an instrument of self-glorification.  After he has felt humiliation and endured the fury of the storm he becomes increasingly aware of his own faults and of the needs and sufferings of others.  In the great transitional scene on the heath, he shows kindness towards the Fool (‘Poor Fool and knave, I have one part in my heart that’s sorry for thee’), and he urges Kent and the Fool to go before him into the hovel.  Before sleeping he will pray, and in his prayer, he thinks of the poor naked wretches of whose misery he has never before been sufficiently aware: ‘O, I have taken too little care of this’.

In Lear, religious feeling grows out of suffering and disappointment with worldly hopes; before he gains his soul, he must first lose the world.  His final two speeches before he goes to prison are deeply religious.  He renounces all power and earthly prosperity; he is contrite of heart; with Cordelia he will pray and meditate on heavenly things; he talks of blessing, forgiveness and sacrifices.  His long and painful trial, far from giving one cause for doubting divine benevolence, may be interpreted in quite the opposite sense.  A.C Bradley realised this, and in a celebrated passage, he argued that Lear owes his own spiritual awareness,

to those sufferings which make us doubt whether life was not simply evil, and men like the flies which wanton boys torture for their sport.  Should we not be at least as near the truth if we called this play, The Redemption of King Lear, and declared that the business of the gods with him was neither to torment him, nor to teach him a noble anger, but to lead him to attain through apparently hopeless failure the very end and aim of life.

The main stages of Lear’s spiritual development can be charted as follows:

  • His efforts to practice self-control and patience
  • His repentance for his treatment of Cordelia
  • His speech on ‘true need’
  • His pity for the ‘poor naked wretches’
  • His recognition of the falseness of flattery and of the brutal nature of authority
  • His consideration for the Fool (‘In boy, go first’)
  • His ‘I’ll pray, and then I’ll sleep’ in the hovel, in contrast to his earlier vehement cursing and crying for vengeance
  • His discovery of love and its true meaning
  • His new notion of happiness (‘Come let’s away to prison’) with Cordelia

His ‘conversion’ is not an altogether simple, straightforward process.  Against the idea that he is converted during the course of the play from a proud, fierce egotist into a patient, suffering Christian martyr, one has to bear in mind his outbursts of anger, hatred and vindictiveness to the very end:

A plague upon you, murderers, traitors all ….

I killed the slave that was a hanging thee ….

I have seen the day, with my good biting falchion ….

I would have made them skip ….

Similarly, his madness is not a straightforward process either.  Madness is one of the central themes of the play.  Lear’s madness is part of its paradoxical structure.  What is most striking about Shakespeare’s presentation of this theme is that during his mad scenes, Lear’s lunacy is allowed co-exist with his deepest insights.  The matter is well expressed by Edgar in the most powerful paradox of the play; ‘o matter and impertinency mixed / Reason in madness’ (IV, vi, 178).  Like Gloucester’s blindness, Lear’s madness becomes a positive value.  Because he is mad, Lear is set free from conventional restraints and limitations and can see the defects of society from a new perspective.  He reaches a degree of understanding which he never achieved while he was sane.  He now understands how flatterers obscured his view of reality; he understands the hypocrisy of society with regard to crimes of lust; he rails against the common treatment of criminals, and against his own long neglect of the poor and defenceless.  He sees, too, that the human condition is inevitably tragic:

When we are born, we cry that we are come

To this great stage of fools …. IV, vi, 179

Lear is not the only character who exemplifies the play’s preoccupation with reason in madness.  Shakespeare chooses a trinity of men to suggest that the greatest wisdom may belong to those whom the world may regard as either mad or useless.  Lear is a doting old man even before he descends into madness; the Fool is unbalanced, and Edgar a pretended madman, an outcast beggar, an incompetent manager of worldly affairs.   The comments and attitudes of these three embody most of the wisdom that the play has to offer on questions of life and living.

The following are the main stages in Lear’s madness, which is induced by a series of shocks:

  1. The rebuff by Cordelia
  2. The attack by Goneril, which makes him pretend not to know her and not to know himself
  3. He begins to realise how he has wronged Cordelia
  4. In Act I, Scene v, there is full recognition of his folly
  5. At the end of Act I,  he has his first serious premonition of insanity, ‘O, let me not be mad, not mad, sweet heaven…’
  6. The third great shock comes when he finds Kent in the stocks. This insult to his royal dignity causes the first physical symptoms of hysteria (hysterica passio: II, iv, 55).
  7. The fourth great shock is his rejection by Regan. The storm is the projection on the macrocosm (the universe) of the tempest in the microcosm (the human mind) … ‘O, Fool, I shall go mad’.
  8. He identifies with the storm … a sign that reason has been overthrown by passion.
  9. He is on the verge of madness when he invokes the storm to destroy the seeds of matter … ‘My wits begin to turn’.
  10. The appearance of Poor Tom drives him over the edge. Poor Tom is both a living embodiment of the ‘naked poverty’ and one who is, apparently, what Lear has feared to become. In acting out the madman’s role, Edgar brings on Lear’s madness.  Exposure to the elements and physical exhaustion hinder his recovery from the shocks he has so far endured.
  11. He is soon trying to identify himself with unaccommodated man by tearing off his clothes.
  12. A. C. Bradley saw the real beginning of Lear’s madness in ‘Hast thou given all to thy two daughters?’ (II, iv, 49), which marks the dominance of a fixed idea or obsession.
  13. The madness of the elements, the professional ‘madness’ of the Fool, the pretended madness of Edgar, the madness of the King – all exemplify the break-up of society and the break-up of the universe itself under the impact of ingratitude and treachery. Then Gloucester appears, almost mad with grief at his son’s treachery, and only Kent is wholly sane.
  14. The ‘trial scene’ is the peak of Lear’s madness. He imagines he sees Goneril and Regan … ‘She kicked the poor King her father …’. Cordelia describes him at the peak of his madness (‘Crowned with rank fumiter and furrow weeds…’).  The whole tableau marks a reversion to childhood.
  15. Lear recovers his wits at the end of Act IV. His cure comes with sleep, music and Cordelia’s love … and finally with his confession and kneeling to her.
  16. After his recovery, Lear never really returns to the world of time and space. Cordelia becomes his whole world, and he lives in a kingdom that she creates for him by her presence.

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Cordelia

Cordelia can be misunderstood.  She is not to be seen as a totally meek, saintly sufferer, or as a totally passive victim.  In many ways, if you think about it, she is very like her father!  She has inherited his pride and like him, she too can be obstinate and stubborn.  She responds to his pride with her own pride at the beginning.  There is one detail in the reconciliation scene which tells us much about her character.  While her father is still asleep, she can address him eloquently, and in a way which leaves her love for him in no doubt.  But when he is awake, she finds it difficult to express her love and can speak only in monosyllables.  There is one main line of development in her character: by the end, pride, though still evident, is submerged in love.

Cordelia appears in only four of the twenty-six scenes and speaks only about a hundred lines.  Her influence on the overall effect of the play is, however, out of all proportion to this small contribution.  For many readers, not all of them sentimentalists, her very presence in the play goes far in the direction of counterbalancing the evil represented by her sisters and their allies.  She can be eloquent enough at times, but her characteristic feature, emphasised more than once, is silence, or quiet, economical speech.  Lear remembers her voice as having been ‘soft, gentle and low’.  She herself recognises her inability to find words to express her deepest feelings:

Unhappy that I am, I cannot heave

My heart into my mouth.

Her motto is ‘Love and be silent’.  All she can manage by way of verbal reaction to Kent’s letter is the repetition of the name of ‘Father’, and then she goes off ‘to deal with grief alone’.  Her reticence during the reconciliation scene is again characteristic (‘And so I am, I am … No cause, no cause …’).  In fact, her only response to his final speech is one of tearful silence.

Kent wonders how Cordelia, Goneril and Regan could be the children of the same parents:

                                                            It is the stars,

The stars that govern us, govern our conditions;

Else one self mate and mate could not beget

Such different issues ….

There is, however, a sense in which Cordelia can be seen as embodying some aspects, good and bad, of Lear’s character.  She is as R.B. Heilman remarks, the side of Lear capable of tenderness, love and insight, but she also embodies some, though not all, of his proneness to error.  His rash abdication amounts to a refusal of responsibility, a fatal withdrawal from the world of action.  But Cordelia’s refusal to co-operate in his childish scheme for the distribution of power also amounts to a withdrawal from responsibility.  The combined withdrawal of Lear and Cordelia, through pride and self-will, allows power to pass into the hands of Goneril and Regan.  As A.C. Bradley puts it, ‘at a moment where terrible issues join, Fate makes on her the one demand which she is unable to meet’.

In the thematic scheme of the play, she is an embodiment of a concept of Nature totally opposed to that represented by Edmund, Goneril, Regan and Gloucester.  For her, the natural bond between father and daughter is central to human existence.  Her absolute fidelity to this is her most obvious claim on our attention and admiration.  Her sisters break all the natural bonds and pursue their egotistical ends with remorseless energy.  She upholds the principles on which civilised life must ultimately depend.  Her role in this regard is defined by the Gentleman:

Thou hast a daughter

Who redeems Nature from the general curse

Which twain have brought her to.

The meaning of these lines is that Cordelia, through her selfless clarity with regard to her erring father has corrected the gross imbalance in Nature which Goneril and Regan have brought about.

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Goneril and Regan

Lear’s two wicked daughters cannot quite be classified together as indistinguishable partners in evil.  They are distinguished in various significant ways.  Goneril, the elder, is the more active of the two in the pursuit of crime.  She commits murder and adultery and plots the murder of her husband.  She appends her name to Edmund’s on the death-warrant for Lear and Cordelia.  She has the more forceful character of the two, and as far as one can judge, fears nothing or nobody, either in this world or the next.  She pays no heed to Lear’s curse and, significantly, she is the only one of the major characters who never mentions the gods.  Her suicide following her exposure and the collapse of her schemes is undertaken without hesitation and without any sign of inner turmoil.  On the other hand, Regan’s wickedness is not on as grand a scale as Goneril’s.  She is more petty, she is meaner, and she is weaker in character.  She resorts to telling a lie about Edmund’s intentions towards Gloucester, something Goneril would scorn doing.  On the other hand, it is the ‘weaker’ Regan who becomes, in the end, the more violent in cruelty, turning even more savage than even Cornwall her husband.  She jeers at the blinded Gloucester, telling him with relish that his son has betrayed him.

Perhaps the most important quality of mind that Goneril and Regan have in common is that they are rationalists and realists, totally unhampered by any moral sense or family feeling.  Their aim in life is to satisfy their own desires.  They are shrewd and practical and, within limits, most effective operators.  What they lack above all is imagination.  They have no time whatever for sentiment and fail to see why Lear should want to enjoy the outward symbols of status.  They are prepared to use his old age as a justification for taking these away from him.  In their logical scheme of things, old age has no use or function, and old men are superfluous nuisances.

Goneril, in particular, exhibits considerable cunning in bringing about Lear’s humiliation.  Regan would prefer a more cautious approach; Goneril acts to bring trouble to a head and gets things over quickly and ruthlessly.  She first tells Oswald that he and his fellows may adopt a ‘weary negligence’ in attending to Lear’s needs because she would ‘breed occasions’.  She then complains to Lear, with much show of reason and in a righteous tone about the behaviour of his men.  Regan’s dishonesty follows a similar pattern.  She is mistress of the technique of guilt by association.  When, for example, Gloucester comments on Edgar’s supposed treachery, she asks, ‘Was he not companion with the riotous knights / That tend upon my father’ (II, I, 96).

Lear touches on an essential feature of both his daughters when in his madness he wonders about Regan’s conduct: ‘Let them anatomize Regan, see what breeds about her heart.  Is there any cause in Nature that makes these hard hearts?’  Hardness of heart is, of course, a mild term for what Goneril and Regan exhibit as they grow in power.  When they hear of Gloucester’s defection, they react spontaneously with brutal directness:

Regan: Hang him instantly.

Goneril: Pluck out his eyes. (III,vii, 4)

It is appropriate that some of the more revolting images of the play are used in connection with the two, Goneril in particular.  She is a kite, her ingratitude has a serpent’s tooth, she has a wolfish face; in her sharp-toothed unkindness, she is like a vulture attacking her father.  Albany sees her as a gilded serpent; Gloucester says she has the fangs of a boar.

Both Goneril and Regan are efficient managers of the operations against their father and Gloucester.  They prove effective in serving their own interests – up to a point.  The turning point in their fortunes is reached when their strongest weapons – coolness and calculation – are destroyed by passion.  When Goneril, seeing Edmund, gives him ‘strange oeilliads and most speaking looks’, she rouses Regan’s jealousy.  The passion they both feel for Edmund cannot be controlled or manipulated in the same way that their other activities could.  But even before this passion clouds their reason, they are beginning to lose control.  This is evident in their dealings with Gloucester, where their wildness and loss of emotional balance contrast with their coolly efficient attitude to Lear.   Their intense rivalry over Edmund causes them to behave rashly and even foolishly, to abandon the careful, pragmatic approach that ensured their worldly success up to now.  As Granville-Barker observed, ‘Regan with a little law on her side, presumes on it, and Goneril poisons her, as she might a rat’.  There is, of course, a fundamental irony in the fate of the two, particularly in the fact that children who could entertain no particle of feeling for their aged father who loved them should be destroyed by a consuming passion for an egotistical monster who cared nothing for either of them: ‘Which of them shall I take? Both? One? Or neither?’ (V, ii, 57).

 

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Edgar

Edgar is easily the most puzzling character in the play.  There are those who suggest that he is not really a character at all, and that the name Edgar covers a sequence of roles rather than a stable personality.  One can identify five different Edgars over the course of the play:

  1. The simple-minded victim of Edmund’s scheming
  2. The Bedlam Beggar
  3. The peasant
  4. The chivalrous champion who takes on Edmund in single combat; and
  5. The choric commentator on the action of the play

Those who wonder about Shakespeare’s intentions with regard to Edgar ask how one is to believe that the foolish, pitiful figure of the first few scenes can become the impressive, authoritative one who lends distinction to the closing scenes.  The commonest explanation is to see the change in terms of the kind of moral development exhibited in other characters: Lear, Gloucester, Cordelia, Albany.  Edgar, if he is to be seen as a single, consistent character, must then be understood as one who learns by experience, and by exposure to suffering, his own and that of others.

It is best, however, not to look too closely at Edgar’s ‘personality’, or the lack of it, but to emphasise his functions as a choric commentator and as the play’s wise philosopher. He embodies much of the religious feeling of the play, as can be seen from his numerous pronouncements on the relations of the gods with men.  He has a deep and cheerful faith in the ultimate triumph of goodness, and in the benevolence of the Powers who govern man’s destiny on earth.  He is the one who can see beyond temporary changes in human fortune to some grand design.  His function with regard to Gloucester is to save him from despair.  It is appropriate that he should be the one to provide the answer to Gloucester’s black indictment of the gods as no better than boys who kill flies for sport:

                                                            therefore, thou happy father

Think that the clearest gods, who make them honours

Of men’s impossibilities, have preserved thee ….

It is possible, at times, to find Edgar’s moral stance a bit chilling and stern.  One comment that springs to mind in this regard is his verdict on his dead father, delivered to the dying Edmund:

The gods are just and of our pleasant vices

Make instruments to plague us:

The dark place where thee he got

Cost him his eyes …

Moralising comes naturally to him, but he is, on the whole, a compassionate moralist, feeling deeply for his father (Act IV, Scene i), acting as his guide and tutor, and repaying evil with kindness and sympathy.  Those who read King Lear as a Christian play with a pagan setting can point to Edgar’s behaviour, attitudes and comments.  A striking instance is his treatment of the dying Edmund:

Let’s exchange charity

Little wonder that Granville Barker called Edgar ‘a very Christian gentleman’.

Edmund

Edmund is one of the most imposing ‘personalities’ of the play.  He is endowed by Shakespeare with singular force and energy.  He has a distinctive point of view, a distinctive attitude to everybody and everything around him, and a highly individual mode of expression.  He is perhaps the most evil of all of Shakespeare’s characters, quite amoral, devoted exclusively to his own interests, and prepared to destroy anything or anybody that might interfere with his plans.  There is, however, a significant contrast between him and Lear’s evil daughters.  Nobody has ever been able to come up with anything even moderately favourable to say on their behalf; in his case, on the other hand, one is compelled to acknowledge a certain superficial attractiveness, a range of interesting attitudes, a liveliness of mind, a real, if perverted, sense of humour, qualities which make it possible for one critic to call him the ‘wittiest and most attractive of villains’!  His ‘wit’ is, of course, exercised at the expense of his ‘credulous father and brother noble’, the first a man of limited intellect to begin with, the second an incredibly naïve victim.   His positive qualities include a considerable strength of will, an excellent presence, and enough charm and plausibility of manner to impress a variety of observers, including Goneril and Regan.

Our first view of him is as a rational, cynical observer of the follies and superstitions of other men, particularly Gloucester.  He is very much the ‘modern’ man, with no time for traditional values or for the accepted view of things.  He is an atheist.  He denies any relationship between the ‘orbs from whom we do exist’ and his own destiny.  He also refuses to accept the central notion of an organic universe, with all the bonds and relationships that this implies.  He recognises no ties between himself and others, no obligations on his part.  He thus rejects the scheme of values represented by Cordelia and Albany. The latter, in a famous comment, holds that a strong bond of natural sympathy binds human beings to each other, like twigs to the branches of a tree.

Edmund has no principles of any kind, nor does he pretend to have.  He places no value on anybody else.  The claims of blood-relationship, friendship or loyalty mean nothing to him. He looks on others either as the means of helping him to make his way in the world, or as hindrances to his advancement, and he acts accordingly (‘Legitimate Edgar, I must have your land’).  His attitude to Goneril and Regan illustrates both his total heartlessness and his cynical humour:

To both these sisters have I sworn my love

Each jealous of the other, as the stung

Are of the adder.  Which of them shall I take?

Both? One? Or neither?

He never allows himself to be distracted from his aims, his eventual one being the crown.  He takes his chances as they come.  He is master (like some in Westminster and Washington today) of the technique of plausible lying and this is most evident in his undoing of Edgar.  Even as he betrays his own father to Cornwall he talks of loyalty!

Shakespeare provides various subtle touches in his portrait of Edmund.  As he advances in the world he becomes a snob.  ‘If thou art noble’, he tells the masked Edgar, ‘I do forgive thee’.  He finally exposes himself to ridicule and humiliation when he begins to regard himself as Albany’s equal, and tries to patronise him (‘Sir, you speak nobly’).  Albany, however, is more than a match for him here, and puts him firmly in his place:

                                    Sir, by your patience

I hold you but as a subject of this war

Not as a brother

Half-blooded fellow, yes …

Perhaps the ultimate sign of Edmund’s worthlessness as a human being is his belated gesture in attempting to save Lear and Cordelia, and his motives for the attempt.  The significant point about the episode is that it is only after Goneril confesses to poisoning Regan and then commits suicide that Edmund, believing that he was loved, thinks of trying to save Lear and Cordelia:

Yet Edmund was beloved.

The one the other poisoned for my sake

And after slew herself …

I pant for life.  Some good I mean to do

Despite of mine own nature … V, iii, 240

It is worth noticing that in the presence of the dead bodies of those he supposes loved him, he says nothing about them but thinks only of himself, and even at this late hour of his life enjoys the luxury of being ‘loved’ in so extreme and dramatic a fashion.  There is a note of sentimental vanity and self-congratulation in his closing speech.  It is also characteristic of him that he talks impressively about meaning to do good, and that his only real effort in this direction comes too late to be of any use.  It may, perhaps, be idle speculation about his motives for wanting to save Lear and Cordelia.  One suggestion is that he is moved by Edgar’s account of his father’s death.  Another is that surrounded as he is at this point by ‘good’ characters, he takes on some of the qualities of his environment.  Another way to see his action is that having lost everything he cared for (his own life and worldly position), he can perform his dramatic gesture to impress the onlookers, without any loss to himself, but without any real commitment either.  There is also the possibility that we are to take Edgar’s last dramatic gesture as Shakespeare’s way of saying that even the most morally depraved can sometimes display unaccustomed virtue in certain circumstances.

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Gloucester

One of Gloucester’s main functions in the play is as a parallel to Lear.  Like Lear, he is betrayed by the child he loves, and supported by the one he unjustly rejects.  His sufferings may be traced to human folly and injustice, and, like Lear’s, these sufferings purify his character and enlighten him.  He dies a better man than he is when we first meet him.  There are also parallels of character and temperament between the two: like Lear, Gloucester is credulous, hasty and affectionate.  It must, of course, be remembered that Gloucester is built on a very much smaller scale than Lear.  He has nothing of Lear’s tempestuous force and energy.  He is the kind of man one might encounter anywhere in fiction or, indeed, in Westminster or Washington: sensual, careless of the moral code, easy-going, and easily prone to deceit.  One aspect of his behaviour is difficult to credit: the ease with which he falls a victim of Edmund’s deception.  Granville-Barker has suggested that no human being could be as gullible as Gloucester is here, but that Shakespeare asks us to allow him the fact of the deception, just as we have allowed him Lear’s partition of the kingdom.  Such a starting-point, the dramatists ‘let’s pretend’, is essential to the process of getting the story going.  In any case, Shakespeare also makes Gloucester a believer in astrology, ‘these late eclipses of the sun and moon’: if he can believe these things, we feel, he can believe anything.

There are strong indications that Gloucester is not a man of firm moral purpose.  His flippant attitude to his ‘fault’ in begetting Edmund is a clear indication of this, as is the fact that the illegitimate Edmund is younger, not older, than Edgar. (Think about it!).

It is only when prosperous times change to bad, when multiple suffering strikes, that the ‘new’ Gloucester begins to emerge.  He tries to fight against the facts of his predicament and of those nearest to him.  Rather than be conscious of his ‘huge sorrows’, he would choose madness like Lear’s.  His conversion from benevolent, helpless neutrality to tentative support for Lear is not exactly heroic.  He does his best to ensure that his help for the king will not be noticed by the dangerous Cornwall.  ‘If he asks for me’, he tells Edmund, ‘I am ill and gone to bed’.  The irony here is that in confiding in Edmund he is ensuring not his own safety but his destruction, his blinding and casting out of doors.

The essential point to make about Gloucester is his transformation from a weak, erratic sensuality and a feeble-minded devotion to astrology into an impressive witness to the just dealings of Providence with men, and to the power of filial love.  Like Lear, Gloucester attains a higher conception of himself and of man’s destiny through appalling suffering.  He grows better through suffering which elicits from him a profoundly religious response.  His astrological superstition is the nearest he gets to a sense of the supernatural until after he has endured torture and deprivation.  His real transformation begins during the horrible scene in which he is blinded by Cornwall; the extremity of his suffering causes him to call on the gods for help: then he prays for Edgar and asks forgiveness for his own sins.  Before he casts himself down to what he thinks will be his death, he kneels and prays to the ‘mighty gods’ and in their sight, he renounces the world.  After he has been saved from death by Edgar his sense of heavenly goodness deepens.  It is, paradoxically, through his own pain and sorrow and the misery of others that he is at last made aware of ‘the bounty and the benison of heaven’.  It is surely worth remarking that after all he has suffered Shakespeare has him utter this prayer at the end:

You ever-gentle gods, take my breath from me:

Let not my worser spirit tempt me again

To die before you please.

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The Fool

It is necessary to distinguish between the character of the Fool and his role. There is really little enough that one can say about the personality of the Fool, or about his distinctive qualities; there is a good deal to be said about his function in the play, particularly in relation to Lear.

Shakespeare inherited the Fool from the drama of his predecessors – the court jester, the clown.  His most obvious function was to entertain the vulgar members of the audience (‘the groundlings’) with his antics, songs, jokes, quibbles and dances.  There is an element of this in the Lear Fool, who provides some lively entertainment.  Those who write about the character of Lear’s Fool all point out his utter fidelity and loyalty to his master, in good times and in very bad ones.  There is also his touching devotion to Cordelia, reflected in the words of the attendant Knight to Lear (‘Since my young lady’s going away into France, Sir, the Fool hath much pined away’).

There has been a good deal of debate on whether the Fool is sane, mad, pretending to be mad, or just half-witted.  A.C. Bradley has an excellent comment on the matter, particularly in relation to the storm scenes, where the Fool’s role becomes vital.  Bradley asks the question:

Are we to suppose that the insanity of the third character, the Fool, is a mere repetition of that of the beggar – that it, too, is a mere pretence?

He argues that the Fool lives in a logical world of his own, and does not observe the normal distinctions between sense and nonsense, what is the wise thing to do and the unwise.  He is a being, in Bradley’s words,

… to whom a responsible and consistent course of action, even responsible use of language, is at the best of times difficult.

Therefore, a good summary of his mental state might be that he is ‘quick-witted though not whole-witted’.

In the overall scheme of the play, the Fool’s main task is to expose the folly of all those who are supposed to be fully sane and capable in a world of practical affairs from which he is, being a Fool, excluded.  His relationship with Lear in the storm scenes is the real justification for his role.  He is Lear’s conscience, his inner voice, which consistently cries out against Lear’s error and foolishness.  He is also seen to be Lear’s tutor, giving his master many bitter lessons on the realities of life.  When Lear, in Kent’s words, ‘falls to folly’, the Fool must rise to wisdom.  There is continuous and subtle irony in the Fool’s remarks about folly, a keyword in the play, and in the contrast between these remarks and his own behaviour.  On the one hand, he comments severely on the lack of practical wisdom shown by Kent in taking the side of Lear, whose cause is a lost one (‘If thou wouldst follow him, thou must needs wear my coxcomb’).  Here, of course, he is arguing exactly as Goneril and Regan might: he sees folly as not watching one’s own interests.  Again, when he finds Kent in the stocks, he lectures him on the folly of adhering to the losing side, and the wisdom of abandoning one’s loyalty when self-interest points to this course: ‘Let go thy hold when a great wheel runs down a hill, lest it break thy neck with following it; but the great one that goes upward, let him draw thee after’.  This, of course, is rich in irony: the Fool’s words here are mainly a parody of similar sentiments in the speeches of Goneril, Regan and Edmund.  He will not take his own advice, nor will Kent.  Both elect to turn their backs on ‘practical’, selfish wisdom, and instead, they choose unselfish, devoted folly:

But I will tarry; the Fool will stay

And let the wise man fly …

It is worth noticing that nearly all of the Fool’s numerous references to fools and folly are directed at Lear’s poor management of his own interests.  The Fool is not concerned with worldly success or failure; he is much more concerned with the fact that Lear has acted out of a false sense of values, has failed to understand essentials, and, like many contemporary politicians in England at this time, has shown incredibly poor judgement in his dealings with the division of his kingdom and in his dealings with his daughters.  It is the essential task of the Fool to set Lear thinking on the meaning of his actions, and to stimulate in him a re-appraisal of his attitudes.

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Albany

Albany is another of those characters (Lear and Gloucester being the other great examples) who develop in moral stature during the course of the action.  There are two distinct phases in his career in the play.  In the early one, he is clearly under the sway of his strong-minded wife Goneril.  Such, indeed, is her dominance that he is at first is unable to act independently of her will, however differently he may feel.  He does not want to be cruel to Lear and is almost certainly telling the truth when he protests that he does not know the reason for Lear’s violent rage.  On the other hand, there is a strong hint that he shows himself less than enthusiastic about Lear’s stay at his house; the Knight tells Lear that ‘the abatement of kindness’ appears in the Duke himself also and your daughter’.

When Lear does decide to leave, Albany makes a half-hearted stand against Goneril’s decision, only to be brushed aside contemptuously:

Albany: I cannot be so partial, Goneril,

                To the great love I bear you ….

Goneril: Pray you, content …

A little later, Goneril gives her frank assessment of her husband’s character:

This milky gentleness and course of yours

Though I condemn not, yet, under pardon,

You are much more attax’d for want of wisdom

Than praised for harmless mildness …

Little wonder that she leaves him behind when she goes to seek Regan’s help.  She regards him (and at this point in their relationship, not without cause) as an inoffensive, negative, dull spirited man, wanting to leave well alone.  Indeed, this seems to be his motto:

Striving to better, oft we mar what’s well.

However, the ‘new’ Albany who recoils in horror from what has been done to Gloucester is quite a different character from the earlier one.  Granville-Barker makes a good point when he says that Albany is one of those, ‘who let their wrath gather beneath a placid surface till on a sudden it boils over, and if the cause of it lies deep they are never the same again’.  Goneril makes herself intolerable to him and he determines to avenge Gloucester’s wrongs:

                                                See thyself devil!

Proper deformity shows not in the fiend

So horrid as in woman … Gloucester I live

To thank thee for the love thou show’st the king,

And to revenge thine eyes….

Albany has by now cast aside his timidity and begun to exert a moral authority that justifies Oswald’s ‘never man so chang’d’.  Goneril can no longer put him in his place; her heaped insults no longer cow him or even greatly impress him.  He is far from ‘the milk livered man’ she still believes him to be; he answers her in something like her own kind of language; his hands ‘are apt enough to dislocate and tear / Thy flesh and bones’.

In the last moments of the play, he becomes a major force, a calm, noble presence presiding over the course of events.  The landing of Cordelia’s French army places him in a dilemma: he must fight against her soldiers because they are invaders, but he is reluctant because Cordelia represents her father.  Shakespeare, however, underplays the difficulty of giving Edmund the leading part in the action against Cordelia’s forces.  Albany’s real strength of character emerges in his dealings with Edmund after the battle.  He puts the adventurous upstart in his place (‘I hold you as a subject of this war / Not as a brother’).  In the end, Shakespeare preserves Albany’s dignity and superiority by giving Edgar the task of disposing of Edmund.

funny-Shakespeare-spoilers-Hamlet-Macbeth-King-Lear

 

Works Cited

Bradley, A.C., Shakespearean Tragedy. New York: Meridian Books, 1955.

Granville Barker, Harley. Prefaces to Shakespeare, Vol 2. King Lear, Cymbeline, Julius Caesar.  Atlantic Publishers and Distributors (P) Ltd, 2006.

Heilman, R.B., This Great Stage: Structure in King Lear. Louisiana State University. 1948.

Holloway, John.  The Story of the Night: Studies in Shakespeare’s Major Tragedies. Routledge: London and New York. 1961 (Reprinted 2005).

Murray, Patrick. King Lear in Inscapes published by The Educational Company of Ireland. 1980

Schucking, Levin L., Character Problems in Shakespeare’s Plays: A Guide to the Better Understanding of the Dramatist.  First published by George G. Harrap in July 1922.

Spurgeon, Caroline F. E., Shakespeare’s Imagery and What It Tells Us, Cambridge Univesity Press, 1935.

Stampfer, J., The Catharsis of King Lear’ in Shakespeare Survey 13, Cambridge, 1960

 

Further Reading

You might also like to read an analysis of Image Patterns in King Lear here.

You might also like to read ‘Some Central Themes in King Lear’ which touches on topics like The gods in King Lear, Nature in King Lear, The Death of Lear, etc…. here.

 

Image Patterns in King Lear

 

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One of the possible questions on your Leaving Cert Higher Level Paper 2 in June may well demand a good knowledge of the imagery in this great tragedy.  As in all the great Shakespearean tragedies, imagery is very effectively used in King Lear to highlight and illustrate the major themes of the play.

These notes will focus on some of the most important image patterns such as

  • Animal Imagery
  • Images of Violent Suffering and Violent Action
  • Clothes Imagery: Appearance V’s Reality
  • Imagery of Sight and Blindness
  • The Fool’s use of Rich Imagery

Animal Imagery

Animal imagery is dominant in the play.  For many people, these are the images that leave the most lasting impression.  We notice that the animals named are predatory: monsters of the deep, the wolf, the boar, the tiger, the vulture, the serpent, the dragon.  This pattern of vicious animal imagery underlines the theme of predatory humans who feed off one another in Lear’s degenerate kingdom.  The critic A.C. Bradley suggested that as we read the play, ‘the souls of all the beasts in turn seem to have entered the bodies of these mortals, horrible in their venom, savagery, lust, deceitfulness, sloth, cruelty, filthiness’ (Shakespearian Tragedy). Goneril and Regan, in particular, are seen as all-devouring creatures.  The Fool describes their behaviour towards Lear in terms of the cuckoo and its young:

                        “The hedge-sparrow fed the cuckoo so long,

                        That it had its head bit off by its young.”

Goneril and Regan are persistently seen as beasts of prey, or as monsters:

  • More hideous … than the sea-monster” – Act I, iv.
  • “detested kite”, “a serpent’s tooth”, “wolfish visage”, “like a vulture” –Act II, iv
  • “boorish fangs” – Act III, Sc vii
  • “tigers, not daughters” – Act IV, ii

This type of imagery underlines the viciousness of the two characters.  They are seen as creatures that operate by the law of the jungle.  They are very dangerous.  They can devour all that is human and prey on those who are weaker than themselves.

On the heath, ‘unaccommodated man’ comes very close to the animal world – the wolf and owl, the cub-drawn bear, the lion and the belly-pinched wolf.  Poor Tom brings with him the lower and more repulsive animals.  Man no longer uses the animals – “thou owst the worm no silk, the beast no hide, the sheep no wool”.  Man himself seems no more than an animal.  His behaviour suggests this – he is likened either to the monsters of the deep that prey on each other, or to a “poor, bare, forked animal”.  Tom has been “hog in sloth, fox in stealth, wolf in greediness…” (Act III, iv).

In the terrible world of Lear’s vision, man is a beast.  Yet, something may come out of this elemental existence on the heath.  We notice that the animal imagery changes as Lear’s recovery gets underway.  The animals mentioned now are those which convey feelings of pleasure.  In Act V, iii a much-chastened Lear tells Cordelia:

            “We too alone will sing like birds i’ the cage, …”

            “We’ll live and pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh

            At gilded butterflies…..”

These animal images leave two strong impressions.  The primary one is that humanity seems to be reverting to a bestial condition.  Secondly, there is a close association between the animal images and the suggestion of bodily pain, horror and suffering.  As well as savage wolves, tigers and other predators there are ‘darting’ serpents, a ‘sharp-toothed’ vulture, stinging adders, gnawing rats, and whipped, whining, mad and biting dogs.

Therefore, the animal imagery throughout King Lear is a powerful and imaginative expression of the play’s major themes – how predatory human beings destroy decent values by operating the law of the jungle, and how the inevitable result is pain and suffering.

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Images of Violent Suffering and Violent Action

King Lear is the most painful and harrowing of the tragedies.  All through we are conscious of strife, buffeting, strain and bodily suffering to the point of agony.  The images involving the human body are particularly grim.  We have, as Caroline Spurgeon has remarked, the repeated image of the body in ‘anguished movement, tugged, wrenched, beaten, pierced, stung, scourged, scalded, dislocated, flayed, tortured, and finally broken on the rack’ (Shakespeare’s Imagery and What it Tells Us).

Even death is seen by Kent as a welcome release from torture, which is almost the permanent condition of those who live in the Lear universe.  As Lear is dying, Kent makes the appeal:

O, let him pass! He hates him

That would upon the rack of this tough world

Stretch him out longer … (V, iii, 312).

Elsewhere he sees himself wrenched and tortured by an ‘engine’, and his heart about to break ‘into a hundred thousand flaws’.  Gloucester’s ‘flawed heart’ is ‘cracked’ and finally is said to ‘burst smilingly’.  Gloucester’s response to Edmund’s ‘revelations’ about Edgar is full of violent and agitated images.  Within the space of ten lines, Gloucester uses the following: scourged, falls off, cracked, mutinies, machinations, ruinous disorders, discord.  Gloucester himself is subjected to cruel and violent treatment: bound to a chair, plucked by the beard, his beard ‘ravished’ from his chin, ‘tied to a stake’, like a bear ‘to stand the course’.  He has his eyes gouged out, and is ‘thrust out of’ the gates.

The idea that human beings can easily lapse into the condition and behaviour of wild animals is often held out as a possibility in King Lear. Lear is certain that Regan, in his defence, will with her nails, ‘flay that wolfish visage’ of Goneril.  The most striking example of this violent, bestial imagery is Gloucester’s explanation to Regan for sending Lear to Dover:

                        I would not see thy cruel nails

Pluck out his poor old eyes, nor thy fierce sister

In his anointed flesh stick boarish fangs. (III,vii, 56)

Even the generally mild Albany declares that if he were to follow his natural instincts, he would ‘dislocate’ and ‘tear the flesh and bones’ of Goneril.  The generally violenmt tendency of the language and imagery of the play is summed up in Lear’s ironic promise to Cordelia:

He that parts us shall bring a brand from heaven

And fire us hence like foxes.  Wipe those eyes;

The good years shall devour them, flesh and fell

Ere they shall make us weep.  We’ll see ‘em starved first. (V, iii, 22)

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Clothing Imagery: Appearance and Reality

From first to last, there is a steady emphasis in the play on the contrast between man and his clothes.  At the centre of the play, Lear stresses the function of clothing as a symbol of class and wealth, and as a means of hiding perversions of justice:

Through tattered clothes small vices do appear

Robes and furred gowns hide all.  Plate sin with gold

And the strong lance of justice hurtless breaks;

Arm it in rags, a pygmy’s straw doth pierce it. (IV, vi, 164)

 

Lear is the first to mention clothing imagery when he declares in his opening speech that he will “divest (us) both of rule, interest of territory, cares of state…”.

Clothes become a symbol of luxury – “Thou art a lady…” a desperate Lear tells an obstinate Regan in Act II, iv:

            “If only to go warm were gorgeous,

            Why, nature needs not what thou gorgeous wears’t

            Which scarcely keeps thee warm…”

In the Storm Scene, there is much significance in Lear’s tearing off his clothes and his joining “poor Tom” in the naked state.  This gesture allows Lear to become “unaccommodated man … a poor, bare, forked animal”.  It is only when he experiences this reduced state that Lear can truly identify with the poorest of his subjects.  Naked to the elements, he now knows what it is like to “bide the pelting of the pitiless storm”.

The theme of appearance versus reality is a common one in Shakespearean plays.  In King Lear, the image of clothing and its opposite, nakedness, is the imaginative expression of this theme.  Clothes are seen as a camouflage to hide injustice and to symbolise power and privilege.  It is a much wiser Lear who tells us in Act IV, vi, that things – and people – are not always what they seem.  The outward trappings of wealth and privilege can sometimes conceal corruption.  Likewise, poverty in one’s personal appearance can adversely affect the attitude of others towards us:

            “Through tattered clothes small vices do appear.

            Robes and furr’d gowns hide all.

            Plate sin with gold

            And the strong lance of justice hurtles breaks:

            Arm it in rags, a pigmy’s straw doth pierce it.”

Lear has travelled a long way along the road to wisdom since he was fooled by Goneril’s and Regan’s flattery in Act I.

The imagery of clothing in King Lear is closely linked to the theme of disguise.  Just as “robes and furr’d gowns hide all”, Goneril’s and Regan’s hypocrisy is disguised by their honey’d words at the beginning of the play.  Those who do not resort to disguising their true feelings must suffer – i.e. Cordelia and Kent.  In fact, Kent quickly finds that unless he disguises his appearance, his survival is at risk.  Edgar too must assume a new identity if he is to stay alive – he becomes the naked “poor Tom” who is at the mercy of the elements on the heath.

The image of clothing is, therefore, a central one in King Lear.  It is used most effectively to bring out the theme of appearance versus reality.  The notion of disguise is also linked to the clothes imagery in the play.  A key element in the tragedy is that virtue can only survive if disguised, while vice can parade openly and be rewarded. And we wonder if Shakespeare is still relevant in today’s world!

Blindness in Lear

Imagery of Sight and Blindness

The frequent allusions to eyes, sight, and seeing are significant throughout the play.  They begin as early as the first scene when Lear expels the sincere and loyal Kent: “Out of my sight!”  Notice Kent’s emotional plea in reply:

            “See better, Lear and let me still remain

            The true blank of thine eye.”

These words underline Lear’s lack of insight, i.e. mental sight.  The theme will be developed from this point onwards.  Before long, Lear is forced to acknowledge his lack of insight.  In Act I, iv, he is beginning to see Goneril in her true colours.  The truth about his “thankless child” is painful for him: his “eyes” have deceived him, and in bitterness he wants to cast them out:

            “… Old fond eyes,

               Beweep this cause again, I’ll pluck ye out,

And cast you, with the waters that you loose,

To temper clay….  “

The anguished king returns to this theme again later:

            “Does Lear walk thus?  Speak thus?

            Where are his eyes?”

Lear’s redemption is linked to his painful acquisition of the personal insight to himself and to others which he so blatantly lacks at the beginning of the play. His frequent references to sight, eyes, seeing, illustrate and highlight this theme.

Shakespeare also uses the sight/blindness imagery for another purpose.  Through it he merges the main plot and sub-plot of the play, i.e. Lear’s betrayal by his daughters and Gloucester’s betrayal by Edmund.  Gloucester, like Lear, does not know his children.  He is fooled by Edmund and mistakes Edgar’s honesty for deception.  This truth is brutally conveyed to him by Regan in Act III, vii, as Cornwall plucks out the old man’s eyes.  Paradoxically, Gloucester only begins to acquire insight when his physical sight is taken from him.  Within seconds of his becoming physically blind, in Act III, vii, he sees that Edmund truly “hates” him.  Gloucester’s realisation of his foolishness is poignant:

            “O my follies!  Then Edgar was abused.

            Kind gods, forgive me that and prosper him!”

Gloucester may now be “an eyeless villain” according to Cornwall, but in reality he is a much more “seeing” man than before.  His reply to the Old Man who tells him in Act IV, i, “you cannot see your way” is, therefore, highly symbolic.

            “I have no way, and therefore want no eyes;

            I stumbled when I saw”

Gloucester has acquired knowledge and wisdom.  The loss of his physical sight is meant to be understood in that context.

The parallel between Lear’s predicament and Gloucester’s, between main plot and sub-plot, is highlighted in Lear’s words to the blind Gloucester in Act IV, i,:

            “A man may see how this world goes with no eyes.

            Look with thine ears…”

Edgar sums up the paradox later in the same scene: “Reason in madness!”

Through the imagery of sight/blindness in King Lear, Shakespeare parallels the main plot and sub-plot, and this highlights the paradox at the very centre of the play.

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Richness in the Imagery used by the Fool

The Fool in King Lear is one of the most interesting comic characters in all of Shakespeare’s plays.  His language is rich, his thoughts at times profound.  It is worth looking more closely at some of the imagery which he uses.

From the first moment of his appearance in the play, the Fool begins his commentary on Lear’s foolish behaviour.  His first action is to offer Kent his “coxcomb” – his foolish cap.  He explains that Kent has a right to the coxcomb  “for taking one’s part that’s out of favour”.  The Fool then goes on to compare the Truth to a dog that must be whipped out of sight and confined to its kennel.  In the universe of hypocrisy and deception which Lear has now created, Truth, as always, will be the first casualty.

As Act I, iv, progresses, the Fool is relentless in pursuit of Lear and his folly.  Although disguised in the form of nonsense rhymes, the Fool’s message is consistent: the real Fool is Lear himself.  In one of these rhymes, the Fool distinguishes between the Fool who wears “motley”, i.e. the Fool’s uniform, and the real Fool who wears ordinary clothes, i.e. Lear.

At times the Fool is more direct: “thou hadst little wit in thy bald crown, when thou gavest thy golden one away”.  He keeps up this piercing banter until Lear threatens to have him whipped.  The Fool’s response is sharp:

“I marvel what kin thou and thy daughters are: they’ll have me whipped for speaking true, thou’lt have me whipped for lying…. I had rather be any kind o’ thing than a fool: and yet I would not be thee, nuncle; thou hast pared thy wit o’ both sides, and left nothing ‘i the middle”.

As Act I is drawing to a close, Lear is beginning to question his own wisdom in giving everything to his daughters.  Goneril has already complained about the size of his retinue of followers, and the Fool’s premonitions look like becoming a reality.  Lear is troubled, and his appeal to the fool now is urgent:

            “Keep me in temper; I would not be mad!”

From now on, the Fool will also be mindful of his master’s suffering as well as his folly.

In Act II, iv, the Fool’s language is dense with significant imagery.  He keeps up the meaningful rhymes which take the edge off his poignant commentary:

            “Fathers that wear rags

            Do make their children blind,

            But fathers that wear bags

            Shall see their children kind”.

He also uses the imagery of a wheel careering down a hill and out of control to depict Lear’s fate for Kent.  He warns Kent that he will be crushed if he doesn’t release his hold on the “wheel”:

“Let go thy hold when a great wheel runs down a hill, lest it break thy neck with following; …”

When Lear comes to the verge of emotional collapse in this scene, the Fool switches to nonsense to try and retrieve the situation:

Lear:   “O me, my heart, my rising heart! But, down

Fool:   Cry to it, nuncle, as the cockney did to the eels when she put ‘em i’ the paste alive; she knapped ‘em o’ the coxcombs with a stick, and cried “Down, wantons, down!”  ‘Twas her brother that, in pure kindness to his horse, buttered his hay.”

As the climax of the play approaches, there is poignancy in the Fool’s attempts to save his master from total despair.  He relents in his torture of Lear and concentrates instead on urging him to take care of himself:

“O nuncle, court holy-water in a dry house is better than this rain-water out o’ door” …

But the caustic note is not completely gone.  When Kent asks “Who’s there?”, the fool’s reply is deliberately ambiguous:

            “Marry, here’s grace and a codpiece,

            That’s a wise man and a fool”.

One is in no doubt that he means to convey how these roles have been reversed.

Through the imagery of his speech, the Fool acts as a kind of intelligent chorus in King Lear.  He never lets us forget the tragedy of what is happening on the stage.  His loyalty to, and concern for, his master is touching.  He is, perhaps, the play’s most endearing character.

 

funny-Shakespeare-spoilers-Hamlet-Macbeth-King-Lear

 

Works Cited

Bradley, A.C., Shakespearean Tragedy. New York: Meridian Books, 1955.

Spurgeon, Caroline F. E., Shakespeare’s Imagery and What It Tells Us, Cambridge Univesity Press, 1935.

 

Further Reading

Single Text Study Notes on ‘King Lear’

Some Central Themes in Shakespeare’s King Lear

Study Notes on ‘King Lear’

larryavisbrown.homestead.com
larryavisbrown.homestead.com

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.

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http://www.slideshare.net

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.

shakespeare-lovers.deviantart.com
shakespeare-lovers.deviantart.com

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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rwkaz.deviantart.com

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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