During the Elizabethan/Jacobean period, ideas such as the Divine Right of Kings, the nature of order and hierarchy and the idea of the microcosm and the macrocosm were all seen as “common sense”. This ideology can be directly translated within King Lear because it is clear that these Elizabethan/Jacobean themes and beliefs run throughout the play in a number of different ways. One motif that is particularly prevalent in King Lear is the notion of kingship and the theory of the Divine Right of Kings.
The Divine Right of Kings was a theory that argued that certain kings ruled because they were chosen to do so by God and that these kings were accountable to no person other than God. Shakespeare shows these beliefs in King Lear because, despite the fact that Lear has disturbed the ‘natural order’ of things by giving up all of his land and in effect renounced his status as King, he still expects to be treated like a King by his daughters and subjects alike.
Lear shows this belief when Oswald responds to his question of “Who am I, sir” with “‘My lady’s father’, my lord’s knave”.
Lear is so outraged by this seemingly disrespectful answer that he strikes Oswald, thus illustrating the fact that despite giving up his kingdom, Lear remains proud and believes that he has the right to be treated like a king. Another significant issue that Shakespeare uses in the play is that of the “Machiavellian alternative”. This idea is portrayed primarily through the character of Edmund but also to a lesser extent through Lear’s daughters Goneril and Regan who according to Lear “wicked”.
The Machiavellian characters in King Lear are all self centred, tyrannical and villainous. The relationship between the microcosm and the macrocosm is an underlying issue in the play, which is conveyed with the idea that as the storm rages out on the heath, so Lear’s mental health decreases and there is metaphorically a storm in his head. Shakespeare has of course implanted many other examples of the Elizabethan/Jacobean world picture and beliefs within King Lear. One such issue is the value of the family.
Contradictory to the values of the time both Lear and Gloucester have poor relationships with their children and both misjudge one of their children and treat them unfairly. At the beginning of the play Lear misjudges Cordelia and exiles her to France when she refuses to tell him how much she loves him. This is clearly a great mistake on Lear’s behalf because Cordelia is in fact the only one of his daughters who truly loved her father. This demonstrates that Lear is a petulant and unwise old man.
A lesser theme within the theme of family relationships would be that of there being a parent – child role reversal starting at the beginning of the play when Lear behaves like a spoilt child towards Cordelia. Cordelia however behaves maturely, honestly and with dignity. One more example of this role reversal comes when Goneril and Regan begin to order Lear around and seem to exert their authority upon him, which is not usually the case in a parent- child relationship.
A good quote to demonstrate this role reversal would be when Regan orders Lear out of her castle by saying “Good sir, no more! These are unsightly tricks. Return you to my sister”. Parents traditionally protect their children and save them from danger, However at the end of the play Cordelia saves Lear from madness and death, which is another role reversal. When Lear is descending into madness his style of language totally changes from the regal manner in which he speaks at the beginning of the play to a lowly tone that would be expected of someone much lower in status.
This contrast is best illustrated by the fact that at the start of the play Lear uses the royal “we” when referring to himself whereas at the end of the play he does not and even goes so far as to describe himself as a “foolish fond old man”. This would not have been seen as an appropriate way for a king to describe himself, especially at that time in history because of the fact that the king was seen as akin to God. At the end the play when Cordelia appears and she and Lear reconcile Shakespeare creates a sense of order being restored to the play and there even appears to be a glimmer of hope for Lear.
We are able to see this slight glimmer of hope through his recognition of Cordelia when he says, ” Do not laugh at me, for, as I am a man, I think this lady to be my child Cordelia”. Because Cordelia remains loyal to her father throughout the play, This links in with the theme of loyalty because even after Lear has wronged her, Cordelia has remained faithful to Lear and obeyed him throughout the play. Cordelia is the only one of Lear’s children who remains respectful to him and even at the end of the play she says ” How does my royal lord? How fares your majesty? Through speaking to Lear in this way, Cordelia shows her loyalty and respect towards Lear. A strong comparison can be drawn between the relationships within Lear’s household and the relationship Gloucester has with his sons. Gloucester misjudges both his sons in a similar way that Lear misconstrued his daughter’s actions. Both Lear and Gloucester send their only loyal and righteous child in to exile and both later suffer the consequences of their reckless actions. In the Gloucester family the laws of primogeniture, which would have been keenly upheld in Elizabethan/ Jacobean society are overturned.
This appears when Edmund becomes Gloucester’s heir in favour of his legitimate son Edgar. This clearly suggests that this law was a topical and interesting issue at the time in which Shakespeare wrote King Lear. Shakespeare brings the echoing theme of exiling the wrong child to the surface again later on in the play when he shows both Lear and Gloucester suffering the consequences of casting out the wrong child. In this way it could be said that justice is done to Gloucester when his eyes are plucked out and to Lear when he is cast out into the storm.
Like Lear with Cordelia, Gloucester reconciles with Edgar at the end of the play, and in a similar way to Lear he too dies shortly after this reconciliation. One interpretation of the reason for the discord within the two families could be the lack of a maternal figure or influence because in each of the families there is not another parental figure to moderate the decisions that are made. It would also be reasonable to say that had there been another parent in the two families the judgements made upon the children may not have been so dire and consequential.
The Divine Right of Kings is an issue that appears strongly in King Lear, mainly due to the fact that even though Lear has committed the disorderly act of splitting his kingdom between two of his daughters, he still expects to be considered as a King. A King effectively forgoing his title and duties would have been seen as wrong to the people of that period in history because they believed that a King was appointed by God, therefore to go against the wishes of God would have been inexcusable.
Due to this belief Goneril and Regan would have been seen to be particularly villainous because of their actions towards their father and therefore treason to the King. Treason and disobedience to ones parents would have both been great offences at this time in history, therefore it could been seen that the eventual demise of Goneril and Regan was their punishment for going against God’s word by rejecting Lear’s authority as both their father and the King. Towards the end of the play Lear recognises his failure as a king and a father.
This recognition is clear through the language that he uses because he refers to himself as a “poor naked wretch” at the end of the play whereas he would never have used such language to describe himself earlier on. The effect of this language would be to show how pathetic and helpless Lear has become and to deliver a stark contrast to the regal language used at the beginning of the play. The relationship between the microcosm and the macrocosm is evident in King Lear through many aspects including Gloucester’s strong belief in the Gods and the heavens being able to indicate disorder in the state.
His belief reflects the core beliefs of the Elizabethan/Jacobean time because people believed that the Gods controlled everything that happens on Earth. Therefore what happens in the play is a microcosm of what is happening in the heavens, or so Gloucester would have seen it. When Lear’s sanity begins so wane there is a metaphorical “storm” of thoughts in his mind, which is echoed by the storm raging on the heath. It can be said that the “storm” of thoughts within Lear is a microcosm of the great storm on the heath because it is conflict of a much smaller magnitude within Lear.
Another example of the idea of the microcosm/macrocosm in King Lear is the relationship between the main plot (Lear’s mental health and treatment by and of his daughters) and the subplot (Gloucester’s treatment by and of his sons). A great many parallels can be drawn between the stories of Gloucester and Lear and their mistakes and actions echo each other. For example, both men cast out the wrong child and misjudge the intentions of their other children and for both men; these decisions have dire consequences in the end and are the main cause of their eventual demise.
Because of this it is clear that Gloucester’s story is a microcosm of Lear’s story because they are so alike. Machiavellian villains and anti-heroes who were only after self-gain and preservation were a very popular feature of Elizabethan and Jacobean drama. In King Lear Shakespeare uses Edmund as the main symbol of a Machiavellian attitude and way of life but inter-linked with the idea of the microcosm/macrocosm, Goneril and Regan also demonstrate the Machiavellian attitude but to a lesser extent. Edmund shows a total lack of respect for all social laws by lying to his father and framing his brother.
He also casts aside political law by trying to break the law of primogeniture and he disrespects familial laws by framing his own brother for his own self gain. However he gets away with all this deceit for such a long time because of his false outer appearance and his false loyalty towards his father. Goneril and Regan also have false outer appearances because at the beginning of the play Goneril declares that she loves her father “Dearer than eyesight, space, and liberty” and Regan tells her father that she is “alone felicitate in your dear highness’ love”.
Although they begin the play with this charade, they maintain it for much less time than Edmunds does and are quick to drop it when they achieve their aim. They are also are much less cunning than Edmund because of how quick they are to show their true nature. Despite the fact that many characters in King Lear are immoral and dishonest there are in fact a few very loyal and moral characters. The characters of Cordelia, Kent, Edgar, the fool and Cornwall’s servants are all virtuous and obedient.
The character of Edgar who is eternally loyal to his father contrasts strongly with the Machiavellian Edmund who is inconceivably deceitful. There is also great contrast character of Cordelia who never does any wrong and her sisters who are constantly deceitful and dishonest. Shakespeare uses the character of Kent to demonstrate loyalty, he is therefore, one of the most loyal in the play and even though Lear banishes him he remains loyal to him and comes back in disguise as a servant to look after Lear.
This shows great loyalty and strength of character because event though Lear has wronged him he is prepared to live the life as his servant which would have been a position well below his title of Earl. It could be argued that the central point of the play is whether divine justice is dispensed or not. This question can be explored through whether the good and loyal characters are saved and the bad and dishonest ones suffer the consequences of their actions and justice is done to them.
However this is a somewhat confusing aspect of King Lear because of the fact that by the end of the play most of the characters, regardless of whether they were good or bad, are dead. In King Lear it appears that despite the fact that Cordelia was eternally loyal to her father she dies at the end of the play, which would suggest that an injustice was done to her. However, the characters of Edmund, Goneril, Regan, Cornwall and Oswald, who were all essentially wicked characters do reach their eventual demise by the end of the play.
This type of ending is of course very common in Elizabethan/Jacobean tragedies and in other Shakespeare works such as Macbeth and Hamlet. The ending of King Lear appears to be not just for dramatic effect but also to emphasise that life is often not just, and that being a wholly good person will not guarantee safety from evil or tragedy. From studying King Lear it is my opinion that the message Shakespeare is trying to convey is that life is fragile, even when you are at the top of the hierarchy because man does not decide their own destiny.
The fact that a great deal of the play is a microcosm of something bigger could be illustrating a belief that everything that happens in life is just a microcosm of something of a much larger scale and importance. Shakespeare uses a great deal of contrast between good and evil because every good character he uses appears to have an evil partner, which function as binary opposites. An example of this is the brothers Edmund and Edgar and Kent and Oswald. Through these contrasts he is imparting a view that for every good in the world there is, inevitably, an evil.