Shakespeare’s ‘King Lear’
Undoubtedly ‘King Lear’ is considered to be one of the most tragic of Shakespearean plays. Shakespeare explores the boundaries of human nature and the extent. At the time the play was set, Lear would have been absolute monarch. At the beginning of the play Lear is at his zenith and a powerful character within the play. From very early on, Lear reveals a fatal flaw, making him a tragic character. Aristotle defines tragedy upon whether the downfall of a character is internal or external. In the case of Lear, it is an internal downfall, which is first realised as Lear divides his Kingdom.
This creates the possibility of civil war. The consequences of this action are developed through the Characters; Goneril, Regan, and Edmund, all of whom are Machiavellian villains. It is traditional in Shakespearian plays that if the main character is not introduced immediately, his death is inevitable. King Lear is not instantaneously present in the first scene and so due to Shakespearean conventionalism his downfall is foreseeable. Shakespeare creates a mirroring effect; whereby a plot and a subplot reflect events.
The characters Lear and Edmund both begin as controlled characters, whom appear to be the instigators of their own fate. This suggests that their arrogance entitles them to believe that they are above the natural order: ‘Thou nature art my goddess’ (1. 2. 310) This suggests that Edmund adheres to his own rule and refuses to conform to the social status that is imposed upon him. Shakespeare creates a similar effect when presenting the character King Lear: ‘Come not between the dragon and his wrath! ’ (1. 1. 123)
At the beginning of the play, Lear is subject to sycophancy when conducting a ‘love test’ in which a competition for the largest portion of land is initiated when Lear is dividing his Kingdom between his three daughters; Cordelia, Goneril and Regan. The falsity of Goneril and Regan’s hyperbolic expressions of love reveals Lear’s fatal flaw as blindness to the truth. By suggesting this flaw, Shakespeare clearly follows the conventions of Aristotelian tragedy: ‘I do love you more than word can wield the matter’ (1. 1. 55)
This is further reinforced at a latter stage: He always loved our sister most, and with what poor judgement he hath now cast her off’ (1. 1. 292) This suggests that their language was an exaggeration in order to gain a significant ‘dowry’. By casting aside his most faithful daughter, it is suggestive that his two other daughters will treat him neglectfully. This reinforces the tragic genre, as the inevitable ill-treatment of Lear will be the beginning of his downfall. This reinforces Lear’s metaphorical blindness; a theme that runs throughout the play and is the flaw that instigates tragedy.
Shakespeare builds tension as it seems as if Goneril and Regan will discard their father now that they have inherited a considerable portion of land. From the outset of the play, Shakespeare makes broad statements about the character’s personas and roles within the play. By creating such contrasting characters, tragedy is inevitable. By doing this it seems as if Shakespeare attempts to heighten the audience’s emotional involvement in the play. The characters are made up of a network of biological relations.
However, Shakespeare does not introduce a mother-figure into the play at any stage. This seems ironic in that Shakespeare is attempting to exclude a theme that is repeated throughout the play. Women as mothers have represented nature, the Earth and it’s bounty since prehistoric times. Without the presence of a mother “who at her bosom feeds plants, animals and men” (Larousse 428) it is inevitable that the immorality of society will breed anarchy and therefore broaden the depths of tragedy. Within the play, the character Cordelia takes the role of the ‘child’.
Without guidance from a mother or father-figure in the play, it seems inevitable that Cordelia’s idealistic approach to life will lead to her downfall. Cordelia and Edgar represent justice and as Shakespeare removes this theme from the play, it is apparent that villainy and treachery will prevail. The villainy takes form in the character Edmund, whom appears to take an opposing opinion of society, and their standing on legitimacy: ‘As to the legitimate. Fine word—“legitimate”! ’ (1. 2. 18) As the play progresses, his malevolency towards other characters lead them to have a nihilistic perception of life.
This is reinforced as Gloucester is overcome with turmoil and wishes to end his life. The tragic genre becomes more apparent as both Gloucester and Lear, discount hope and quite literally cast it aside: ‘As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods, they kill us for their sport. ‘ (4. 1. 38) Furthermore, the inauguration of Edmund’s plot begins to unfold as he warns his half-brother Edgar that he had ‘offended’ Gloucester and so should flee ‘abroad’, ‘armed’. This of course is artificial and a ploy to inherit a valuable dowry from his father Gloucester.
Both Edgar and Gloucester, as the ‘father and a noble brother’ of Edmund were ‘foolish’ in believing his word. Edmund’s animosity towards both characters is well presented as he prepares them both for a synthetic betrayal. Within the main plot, similar under-handedness is brought upon King Lear, whereby Goneril and Regan deceive him in order to gain themselves. As the play progresses the outcome of conspiracy appears to cohere with typical Greek tragedy, whereby the heroic character within the play will undergo a transition either from their nadir to their zenith or from their zenith to their nadir.
Aristotle argued that a conversion from a character’s zenith to their nadir is more effective, as it invokes pity and sympathy for the character. As the play progresses, Goneril and Regan’s loathing of Lear becomes more and more apparent. As they disregard his previous authority, they revel in his newly stated nothingness. Goneril and Regan reduce Lear to madness and therefore reverse his position. ‘Give me patience, patience I need! ’ (2. 2. 460) However, though the downfall of Lear reduces him to madness, it evokes a personal transition, and he evolves as a man.
Shakespeare defies the regulations of a typical tragedy, as though he reduced a character from a state of integrity and importance to a condition of madness, with this Lear develops a unity with nature. The degradation of King Lear alludes to the fall of man. Shakespeare explores spiritualism as he replicates the allegory of the fallen man. King Lear represented absolute monarchy and importance: ‘Does any here know me? Why, this is not Lear. ’ (1. 4. 217) Like the fallen man, Lear was lead by his sensual desires and had lost management of his inner self. With union of him and nature, Lear gains a sense of humility.
Furthermore, the tragedy of King Lear is somewhat initiated by Lear himself. A constant want for puissance, recognition and monarchy suppresses Lear’s ability to acknowledge the people around him and their actions. By doing so he drives himself to anger. Lear is adamant that the ‘reason’ he requires one ‘hundred knights’ is ‘not the need’, but a representation of his power. By depriving Lear of any reflection of his being his position in society is officially degraded to that of a ‘beast’. His inability to compromise his knights leads to Goneril and Regan’s dismissal of him and his spiral into madness.
Goneril and Regan dismiss their father as a person in power and their treatment of him is far worse than he deserves. Lear states that he is a ‘man more sinned against than sinning’. This is ironic because the instigator of the tragedy was Lear’s first act. Lear’s development into lunacy becomes apparent as he loses ‘patience’ and an uncontrollable rage sends him into an irrational fit of empty threats: ‘I will do such things – what they are yet I know not’ (2. 2. 469) Shakespeare uses pathetic fallacy in the form of a ‘storm and tempest’ in order to express Lear’s anger as a physical force.
The ‘storm and tempest’ also emphasises how the natural order, as well as the social order has taken a radical turn in favour of evil. The change replicates the image of Lear moving from his zenith to his nadir. It seems as if Shakespeare is attempting to invoke pity upon Lear in order to reinforce the tragedy of the play. Though the madness of Lear seems to be the peak of his downfall, his spiral into lunacy develops a relationship between himself and nature. Ironically, Lear is physically at his nadir, but his inner self has regained union with morality and appreciation of the natural world.
Lear’s appreciation of others indicates that humanity enslaves Lear: ‘Come on, my boy. How dost my boy? Art cold? ‘ (3. 2. 68) As a ‘slave’ to nature, he stands at this point in the play as a ‘poor, infirm, weak and despised old man’. As he is tortured by the storm he attempts to torture it back. It is somewhat humorous for Lear to assume that he can affect the natural order. It seems as if Shakespeare intends a fate for each character, and Lear attempts to defy this fate: ‘Let the great Gods that keep this dreadful pudder o’er our heads’ (3. 2. 49)
Alternatively, it is suggestible in terms of fate, that the extent of the tragedy of King Lear is not as immense as it should appear to be. Throughout the play, Shakespeare heightens and flattens tension. By breaking the tension in the play, Shakespeare allows the audience to understand the purpose of events. Lear begins to understand the purpose of kingship after his crown had been taken from him. As he begins to experience the epitome of the social order it exposes him ‘to feel what wretches feel’, it seems as if he understands the prophecy which the fool proclaims later in the play (3. . 80-95).
As Lear explains the importance of aiding and considering others, it is apparent that Goneril and Regan have not reached an equal sense of realisation as they instigate civil war with the cause of a love feud: ‘I had rather lose the battle than that sister should loosen him and me’ (5. 1. 18) The repercussions of Goneril and Regan casting Lear aside and neglecting to care for him spurred Lear to realise his own faults in neglecting a society that depends on him. ‘O, I have ta’en too little care of this’ (3. 4. 32)
If Shakespeare had cast Lear as King with great consideration for his people, it may not have been possible to reduce him to nothing. This is another concept to be considered when understanding Lear’s fatal flaw. Moreover, after stripping Lear of his social standing and subjecting him to a ‘life’ as ‘cheap as beast’s’, his future, though unclear at the beginning of the play, seems now inevitably to lead to death. The uniqueness of Shakespeare’s tragedy is that for a state of catharsis to be reached, along with the death of immoral and amoral characters, moral characters must die also.
Despite much critique, the ending of King Lear is an effective portrayal of realism. The reunion of Lear and Cordelia spurs an emotional link between the audience and the characters. Cordelia’s reaction to her father’s state is one of ‘pity’ as she fails to recognise his ‘face’ to be ‘a face to be opposed against the warring winds’. This reinforces his close proximity to death, and invokes sympathy upon him. The union of father and daughter is a seemingly perfect scene as Cordelia appears before Lear as a ‘spirit’. The play appears so tragic because just as the relationship between Cordelia and Lear is replenished, they both reach their end.
Lear understands that the turmoil of recent events disallows his restoration to the throne or even sanity: ‘I should ev’n die with pity to see another thus’ (4. 7. 53) However, Cordelia is reintroduced to the play as a saviour. Shakespeare may be alluding to Pandora’s Box, whereby hope is desperately attempting to balance the effects of evil, treachery, betrayal, jealousy and greed. Her efforts to regain Lear’s sensibility and his ability to ‘walk’ are successful, however, still with the understanding that he is ‘old and foolish’.
Shakespeare increases tension prior to the significant tragedy of Cordelia’s and Lear’s death. Edmund gives orders to hang both Lear and Cordelia. Shakespeare prolongs the tragedy as the character Edmund fails to act with immediacy when revealing where Cordelia was being held captive. It seems as if Shakespeare prolongs the tragedy in order to create dramatic tension whereby the audience empathises with Cordelia. The build up of tension is essential to reach a state of catharsis at the end of the play, and to result in a dramatic impact and an emotional response from the audience.
Hope is restored as Edmund almost rejects the malignancy of his previous self and reveals the location of Cordelia and Lear: ‘To the castle, for my writ is on the life of Lear and on Cordelia’ (5. 3. 243) Shakespeare allows the audience to believe that as characters with good intent, Lear and Cordelia will survive and the natural order will be restored. However, in order to reach a state of catharsis, there must be an equal hope in the world, as there is malignancy and evil. With Edmund’s death, Goneril’s, and Regan’s; evil is extinguished from the play.
However with this, comes the death of Cordelia. In order to understand the full extent of the tragedy, Shakespeare brings moral characters to their death in order to reach a state of equilibrium. However, the manner in which her death is conducted reinforces the uniqueness of the tragedy. A hanging may appear quite brutal for a female. Traditionally women are cast to die with the aid of a toxin. Moreover, as Lear enters the stage with the corpse of his recently deceased daughter, the tragedy comes to a climax.
As hope is sacrificed, Lear deteriorates further into death and despair as he gains a sense of realisation over his loss. Shakespeare exaggerates the degree of tragedy that is suggested to have brought great turmoil to the natural order; encouraging characters to question, ‘is this the end? ’ Though the blindness of Lear leads to the subsequent death of his entire family, and himself, the fool takes the role of a seer when suggesting that there is a ‘prophecy’ in the name of ‘Merlin’. This suggests that the tragedy of many deaths and the deterioration of Lear was a sacrifice intended to restore catharsis.
The restoration entitles equality amongst the social order, whereby ‘No squire in debt, nor no poor knights’, where ‘bawds and whores do churches build’. From this it can be understood that Shakespeare is relating his play to the monarch at the time, in an attempt to indicate their faults in rule over the ‘Albion’. The extent of tragedy is therefore arguably not as great as it primarily seemed. It seems as if Shakespeare is attempting to make statement about the social order, and the tragedy of the play is purposely used to convert England to ‘the realm of Albion’ and an age of chivalry.
Furthermore, as Lear clutches Cordelia with an overwhelming state of grief and confusion as at first he believes ‘she lives’. Lear then turns to anger at the world as he understands that she is deceased: ‘A plague upon you murderers, traitors all;’ Within a short period at the end of Lear’s life, he experiences many emotions. However, Shakespeare ends Lear’s life with the indisputable belief that Cordelia’s life had been restored. Lear directs attention to ‘her lips’ his excitement is clear as he indicates with emphasis to ‘Look there, look there! Lear’s death breeds purification and the rebirth of the social order.
The tense emotive events leading to the deaths of Lear and Cordelia strengthen the effects of the tragedy. As the characters reach the end of their lives, the play climaxes and all tension is released. This was described by Aristotle as a state of catharsis. Shakespeare’s ‘King Lear’ replicates this state. This reinforces the extent to which ‘King Lear’ is a tragedy. However, though it adheres to the typical factors of an Aristotelian tragedy, there are some boundaries in which it exceeds, emphasising its uniqueness as a Shakespearean tragedy.
Though it seems Shakespeare attempts to reach a state of equilibrium, whereby equal good and evil exists together, characters that remain at the end of the play alive are both moral characters. This is typical of Greek tragedy. Though Shakespeare coincides with the conventions of Aristotelian tragedy, the moral characters left in the play, are two of weak importance. This suggests that in order for strong, moral goodness to thrive, so must the immoralities within a society.