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The Tragedy of King Lear (lit essay)

Posted on November 2, 2011 at 4:40 AM

King Lear (William Shakespeare 1623) traces a father’s decent into madness, after dividing his kingdom up between two of his three daughters, based on flattery. The King’s foolishness brings about tragic consequences for his family and people. Lear’s own insanity grows in parallel with the chaos and bloodshed that has befallen his realm, and many of the characters begin to ask themselves why the gods torment them so; for their sins of for “sport”. The play is at once the most domestic and the most philosophical of tragedies. It quickly moves from family dispute through power politics to a consideration of quite profound ethical and metaphysical issues.


This essay will examine the relationships between King Lear and Gloucester, and their respective children; as well as how their domestic disintegration comes to impact the greater kingdom. It will also analyse the philosophy of the play, contrasting themes of hopelessness, randomness, and existentialism present throughout the narrative.


Throughout the play the family lives of King Lear and the Earl of Gloucester are in a state of disintegration. Both families are missing a mother, and are therefore incomplete to begin with. As the fathers dismiss their loyal children and trust the treacherous, uncaring ones, family life begins to fragment. Although the loyal children eventually forgive their fathers, the fathers, repentant as they are, have become either mad or blind. Shakespeare presents Lear as a tyrannical, over-demanding, and self-centred father who insists on being treated as a king even after he has renounced his crown (Rosenberg). He treats his children and servants with very little respect (“Let me not stay a jot for dinner/Go get it ready”). The collapse of his family starts when Lear’s demand for love increases. He rashly sets up a love test for his three daughters, to see “which of you shall we say does love us most?” He seems to feel that he has earned his daughters’ love and “need not continue trying to maintain it” (Morr). He tries to buy that final commitment by dividing up the. To him love can be measured (“What can you say to draw/A third more opulent?”). Cordelia, who believes that this is false, gives the only possible answer—“nothing, my lord”—as she cannot “heave her heart into her mouth”. The love test staged by Lear only serves to isolate the one faithful member from his family unit. Lear mistakes Cordelia’s honesty for a lack of affection and disinherits her, though the King of France recognises her innate worth and marries her anyway.


Lear, of course, is not the only character to destroy his family. In the play’s subplot, Gloucester humiliates his bastard son Edmund in public. He taunts Edmund’s illegitimacy, and his description of Edmund’s mother is coarse and bawdy; not designed to spare the young man’s feelings. Disintegration starts when Gloucester intensifies Edmund’s jealousy, causing him to complain about his status as a bastard, questioning why he should “stand in the plague of custom” since he is as much his father’s son as his half-brother Edgar. Edmund plots to improve his prospects by discrediting his brother in his father’s eye, and succeeds in making his father believe that Edgar wants to kill him to get his land (“I have/Heard him oft maintain it to be fit/That, sons at perfect age, and fathers/Declin’d, the father should be as ward/To the son, and the son manage his/Revenue”). Gloucester is easily taken in by the fake letter that Edmund shows him regarding Edgar’s intent to kill him. He disinherits and banishes his legitimate son Edger. Gloucester’s own comment—“Love cools, friendship/Falls off/Brothers divide... Son against father.. Father against child”—best summarises the disintegration of his family life (Rosenberg).


On the other hand, after Lear banishes his favourite daughter Cordelia, the family seems to remain intact, because he foolishly believes in his two scheming elder daughters. What he fails to see is that the favouritism towards Cordelia which shows in the beginning of the play “increases Goneril and Regan’s jealousy [and] unleashes their innermost evil” (Goldberg); just as Gloucester’s treatment of Edgar, inspires a wicked ambition in Edmund. Indeed, both Goneril and Regan display a mounting resentment towards their father, “tyrannical as ever”, who “insists on being treated like a reigning monarch” (Goldberg). His “reservation of [a] hundred knights”, as well as the unruly company he keeps, is no longer welcome (“This house is little: the old man and’s people/Cannot be well bestow’d”). The two sisters plot with to deprive the old king of his last meagre sign of royal dignity. Having placed a curse on Goneril, and being reduced to kneel before Regan, begging for “raiment, bed, and food”, Lear realises that he has lost everything—his kingdom, his power—and is being “further humiliated by his own kin” (Goldberg). Enraged as he is, he shatters his family further by swearing “I will have such revenges you both” as he calls upon the gods, who have stirred “these daughters’ hearts/Against their father,” to “touch me with noble anger”. Ironically, the same “noble anger” that has torn the family apart, now drives him mad as he dashes out into the imminent storm, crying “O Fool! I shall go mad”.


Gloucester is undergoing a similar tragedy. After he has disowned his legitimate son Edgar, he reveals the letter to the Duke of Cornwall. This signals a betrayal that costs the Gloucester’s eyes and eventually his life. Upon hearing from Regan that he has been betrayed by Edmund for treason, Gloucester shows his deep remorse: “O my follies! Then Edgar was abused/Kind gods, forgive me that, and prosper him!” In the wake of total dissolution of family life (and their own sanity) both fathers become repentant of their sins.


The disintegration of family, as presented in the separated, yet entwined, cases of King Lear and Gloucester, “becomes dovetailed” towards the end of the play (Rosenberg). At this stage, Gloucester has died shortly after his reunion with Edgar as the “extremes of passion” overpower his heart, making it “burst smilingly”. In the meantime, his illegitimate son Edmund has risen to power, with the crown squarely in his sights, as he manipulates the two evil sisters’ love for him. The triangle of love quickly claims the lives of both sisters and also “puts an end to the old king’s foolish expectation of enjoying a permanent re-union with Cordelia”, even if in prison (Rosenberg). Edmund has Cordelia hanged in prison, delivering the last devastating blow to the old king, who has committed the sin of dividing not only his kingdom, but also his family. Family life in King Lear is made to disintegrate by both of the fathers, who show favouritism in their relationship with their children, and fail to see that they must earn love and respect if wishing to reign even in their own respective households. Their tragedy testifies to the fact that, although children can be different from each other, the integrity of family life undeniably gravitates around unfiltered, and equal shares of, love (Rosenberg).


The fact that Lear tries to measure his daughters’ love, symbolizes how corrupt his personal relationships are, and by extension his relationship with his people. The play’s use of political chaos and domestic conflict provides “a rich background conducive to exploring Lear’s psychological issues” (Rosenberg). Lear undergoes a radical change in his mental and moral state; a change that has far-reaching implications. Even as the play begins, the king is oblivious to the realities of his own world and even his own family. His plan to divide his estate, based on his daughters’ public declarations of love, is a symptom of a self-deluded mind; as is Lear’s response to Cordelia’s refusal to take part in the ritual (Rosenberg). Shakespeare portrays this self-delusion as an extension of his governance. Lear is a privileged ruler, who is very much insulated from harsh lives of his subjects. The play provides us glimpses into the lives of the ruling class, and then juxtaposes in with the brutal social reality that upholds it. Part Lear’s madness is inspired by the confrontation of this reality. Lear becomes vulnerable when he puts himself at the mercy of his daughters and finds himself suddenly homeless and stripped of his attendants and privileges. He discovers a far greater tragedy than his own in the condition of those with whom he shares the open heath in Act III. “Lear’s mental collapse is entirely understandable”, almost inevitable, “given the impossible contradiction” between the world he thought he knew and the reality to which he is exposed Chami).


The onset of his madness is closely linked with his increased social perception and concern. The first occasion on which the outcast king begins to doubt his sanity (“My wits begin to turn”) coincides with his initial expression of compassion (“How dost, my boy? Art cold?”). The second occasion (“O, that way madness lies; let me shun that/No more of that.”) is immediately followed by a surprising outburst of pity: “Poor naked wretches, wheresoe’er you are/That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm/How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides/Your loop’d and window’d raggedness, defend you”). The passage indicates a transforming psyche, which, if it were not called madness, might be empathy (Freeman).


Lear’s full-blown insanity in Act IV produces explicit self-criticism and social condemnation. He begins almost immediately to denounce his former deluded state, as well as those who encouraged it in court (“They flattered/Me like [dogs]... They are/Not men o’ their words: they told me I was every/Thing... ’Tis a lie”). Lear has concluded, or realised, that everything in official life has been a falsehood; while it took banishment for him to witness true nature. He directs his most vicious attacks against the ruling class of society (his former “dogs”), and the social injustice they fermented. Lear tells the blind Gloucester that he “may see how this world goes with no eyes”; that is, society shields itself from inspection and it may take a genuinely blind men to witness its true design (Freeman). The mutilated Gloucester echoes Lear’s criticisms of the wealthy and even adds an appeal for social equality. Earlier in Act IV, Scene VI he calls on heaven to let the “superfluous and lust-dieted man” to “feel your power quickly”; that is, someone who has more than he needs and will not share.


Nature is not cruel in King Lear; it is “indifferent, implacable, and cold” (Chami). The characters try to personify nature, calling it “the gods”, but nature feels nothing. In Act III, Lear howls within the storm; the wind echoing the chaos in his own mind. He encourages the storm at first, as if it were his own anger, raging at the family that has stolen his dignity, after he freely gave them his power (“Blow winds and crack your cheeks! Rage! Blow!”), yet he is ultimately broken by the massing forces symbolised by the storm. The forces of nature “overwhelm the [merely] human actors swept up in them... as age and senility overtake the great king”, and disorder overwhelms the great kingdom that he built, then foolishly broke in two (Chami).


A personified nature might be angry with Lear for avoiding his duty. If the work of his youth was the unification of Britain, then surely the work of his maturity should have been the welfare of its citizens (Chami). He sees this, recognizing in himself the plight of the scorned (“Take physic, pomp/Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel/That thou mayst shake the superflux to them/And show the heavens more just”), but in the end, nature remains indifferent. Justice is a man-made virtue. Lear has not created a just society, as a king ought to do. Instead, he has resigned, “thrusting his country into the hands of grasping, [inadequate], venal queens” (Chami). Still, unreasonably, he demands the dignity of high office without its duties. Nature is impersonal though, and does not judge him. It is a force without aim or character. It “[surrounds] the actors, and buffets them... like the broad circumstances that trap them” (Chami). People, conversely, create societies and hierarchies in which to know their place or change it; to rise or fall by merit or birthright. Society structures and gives moral meaning to each act of a person. Without society, mindless nature is mere chaos, like the storm. When Lear meets with Gloucester, who, like himself, has been betrayed by a child, the pair takes comfort in their quiet society. Then, when Lear is reunited with Cordelia, though a prisoner, he is delighted: “We two alone will sing like birds i’ th’ cage...”.


Once freed and restored to his position, King Lear is without moral force, having “renounced his part in the history of Britain” (Chami). He is a humble, knowing human life has bypassed him in his solitary madness: “I have seen the day with my good biting falchion/I would have made them skip. I am old now/And these same crosses spoil me”. Perhaps, he is no longer mad, having returned to society. Yet, he has tasted the madness and chaos beyond those marbled walls of his palace, and he cannot displace that from his mind; nor the fragility of this thin crust of reality, called England.


At its core, King Lear is more than the tragedy of an individual or group of individuals. There is something encompassing and transcendent about the drama. There was never the possibility of a happy ending. There is nothing gratuitous about the tragedy and violence in King Lear. Rather, the problems speak to something “unsolvable under the social conditions of the early seventeenth century” (Chami). The suffering is a symbol of this insolvability, because the world Shakepeare presents is neither just nor wicked; it is indifferent; it is amoral. Like its protagonist, the world is chaos and madness, entrenched.

Categories: ESSAYS, Literature

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