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!
The Main Characters in King 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:
- The rebuff by Cordelia
- The attack by Goneril, which makes him pretend not to know her and not to know himself
- He begins to realise how he has wronged Cordelia
- In Act I, Scene v, there is full recognition of his folly
- At the end of Act I, he has his first serious premonition of insanity, ‘O, let me not be mad, not mad, sweet heaven…’
- 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).
- 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’.
- He identifies with the storm … a sign that reason has been overthrown by passion.
- He is on the verge of madness when he invokes the storm to destroy the seeds of matter … ‘My wits begin to turn’.
- 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.
- He is soon trying to identify himself with unaccommodated man by tearing off his clothes.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
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).
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:
- The simple-minded victim of Edmund’s scheming
- The Bedlam Beggar
- The peasant
- The chivalrous champion who takes on Edmund in single combat; and
- 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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.