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.