Seeing Love: a Reflection on King Lear
A tragedy is normally defined as a play that follows the series of events that lead to the downfall of a hero. King Lear is no exception to this rule. It shows the destruction and downfall of King Lear and the people who presided under him. Lear is an old man who seeks to retire and live out the rest of his life jumping between his three daughters. He plans to divide his kingdom between all three while keeping the privileges as king. Like any other Shakespearean tragedy things turn sour fast. His decision to divide the kingdom caused the fall out of his family and created a war in the process. The tragedy also follows the traditional hero code of conduct. Lear is highborn and has a lot of influence at the beginning of the play. He is virtuous, but selfish, which causes his demise. This play brings up the typical themes that follow a tragedy: power, family, forgiveness, and internal, as well as external conflicts. King Lear is often been regarded as Shakespeare’s bleakest play, yet there is so much betrayal and sadness in each and every act of the play it is hard not to see why. Lear’s decision alone to divide up his kingdom tells the readers that this play will be a tragedy. Given the time period, this play was written, readers would see tragic implications. During this time period, political and religious beliefs would indicate to the readers that what King Lear is doing would cause nothing but trouble. He is going against the natural order of things. This along with his bad judgment and pride will lead to his own tragic end.
King Lear is a character-driven play. Lear’s decisions ultimately affected everyone in the play. He is stubborn, prideful, and selfish. This prevents him from seeing how things really are. He only sees what he wants to see. He values his reputation, and appearance over the truth. He can’t see the reality of the situations he finds himself in. Yet Shakespeare unfolds the ideas of human nature and its boundaries through Lear. At the beginning of the play Lear has absolute power. He is respected, powerful, and happy with his life, but Shakespeare takes this illusion away as soon as Lear decides to give away his power. When this illusion of Lear being untouchable is shattered, readers then start to see him as a fragile, native, old man. Shakespeare makes it very clear that the suffering is going to be caused by internal issues, as well as external issues. The readers see the consequences of his decision to give away his kingdom through Regan, Goneril, and Edmund, all who are seen as the villains in the play. Yet, Shakespeare seems to want readers to be on the border about whether or not Lear should fall into the category of villain. Both Edmund and Lear seem to be in control of their own fates at the beginning of the play. They both see themselves as above the law and the natural order of things. They act like they are untouchable. Readers can see in act one. Edmund is attached to this idea that he will rule and refuses to accept his social status;
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“Thou nature, art my goddess. To thy law
My service are bound. Wherefore should I
Stand in the plaque of custom and permit
The curiosity of nation to deprive me
For that I am some twelve or fourteen moonshines
Lag of brother? Why “bastard?” (I.ii.1-6).
A similar thing is seen in a line that Lear speaks in act one, “Come not between the dragon and his wrath” (I.ii.136 ). Lear sees himself as the ruler of not only his kingdom but the ruler of his family as well. His own pride prevents him from seeing that his title as king is the only reason, he has rule over his own family. Without his title and land, he is nothing. He thought he could give away his land and still remind the highest authority while making commands. Kent tries to warn Lear that he would not be in power still by saying “reserve thy state”, but Lear couldn’t even fathom the thought of that happening (I.i.167). As a result, his own demise was inevitable, as well as his reversal of fortune.
Lear’s reversal of fortune was caused when he decided to divide his kingdom. Lear asks his daughters to flatter him for the largest portion of land. He has them complete in, what scholars are calling a love test. His eldest daughters see what Lear’s true weakness is and exploits this to gain power. They know he is easily blinded from the truth, “ You see how full of change his age is. / The observation we have made of it hath (not) been little. / He always loved our sister most, and with what poor judgment he hath now cast her off appears too grossly” (I.i.334-358). When Shakespeare has the sisters say this line, it becomes clear to the reader that they don’t actually love him. They only want his power. The moment that makes this scene truly tragic is that Lear casts off his youngest daughter for truly loving him and telling him the truth. Cordelia refused to partake in Lear’s silly game because she sees that it will do nothing but create false flattery. She wanted him to know the truth of how she felt. This truth did not fit his idea of love, so he banishes her and soaks up the lies from the eldest daughters. The destruction of his family and the start of the tragedy begins the moment he kicked her out of the kingdom. The tragedy takes a step further when Shakespeare suggests, that now that they are in power, Regan and Goneril will discard their father as if he is nothing. When the readers get to this scene, Shakespeare has made it clear that Lear has locked himself into his own downfall into madness and self-actualization. By the end of the first act, Shakespeare has hinted at the kingdoms is now vulnerable to a civil war as well as a French invade. Lear marrying off Cordelia to a French prince, without his consent, leaves him open to a war. These rash decisions at the beginning of the play will cause him to suffers continuously throughout the play. When he finally begins to understand his eldest daughters’ true nature it is too late. He begins to see that the situation he has found himself in is bleak and full of betrayal. This realization causes him to fall into madness at the reality of his life and the decisions he made. He slowly begins to lose touch with himself and who he is as the ideas of what life was going to be like come crashing around him, “Does any here know me? / This is not Lear. / Does Lear walk thus, /speak thus? / Where are his eyes” (I.iv.231-233). During these scenes where readers get to see Lear’s realization, Shakespeare is building Lear up to the traditional heroic tragedy. Shakespeare may have the reader’s question Lear’s villainy, but he never commits a crime. The only thing Lear does that could be seen as an evil deed would be dividing his land and casting away his daughter and loyal servant. Those fall more in a poor judgment and rash acting category over an evil deed. Shakespeare has Lear recognizes his own errors. He has him live like the poorest of the poor after his eldest daughters turn their backs on him. Lear learns that the world outside his title is small and in dismay. In act three, as Lear is about to enter the hovel, he shows empathy for the people inside;
“Poor naked wretches, whereso’er you are,
That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,
How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,
Your looped and windowed raggedness, defend you
From seasons such as these? Oh, I have ta’en
Too little care of this! (III.iv.32-38).
This is an important moment for Lear because it is his first large sign of growth and redemption. He finally understands that kings without a title are just like another average man. He acknowledges that he did wrong by his citizens by letting them live in poor and impoverished communities. Another important moment of growth for Lear is in act four where he acknowledges he did wrong by Cornelia. He tries to repent by asking Cordelia for forgiveness in act five, “No, no, no, no. / Come, let’s away to prison. / We two alone will sing like birds i’th’ cage. / When thous dost ask me blessing, / I’ll kneel down and ask of thee forgiveness” (V.iii.9-12). In the final scene, he finally understands the true meaning of love. He sees that he can’t ask someone to measure their love in flattery. As he looks at the body of the only daughter who loved him, he sees that truly loving someone is, to be honest, and true to that person no matter what they do. Lear’s grief sends him back into madness causing him to die of a broken heart. Shakespeare seals the fate of it being a tragedy by having Regan, Goneril, and Edmund die; but Cordelia and Lear die as well.
Another character who Shakespeare has paralleled to King Lear is Gloucester. Gloucester is a man of loyalty and honor. He has served King Lear for years and is very dedicated to him. Gloucester, like Lear, created his own downfall. Shakespeare plays on the reader’s knowledge of the time period. Like with Lear, readers know that the time has a certain political and religious focus. That of early modern Christianity. Given the knowledge on the time period, when Shakespeare introduced Edmund as Gloucester’s bastard, they know this is seen as a sin. Going along with Gloucester’s sin, his pride, moral weaknesses, and misjudgment of his children also lead to his demise, much like King Lear. In Edmunds first appearance, he is introduced by Gloucester as his bastard. A title that no child would want to bear. He was the illegitimate son, who was treated as such. Like Goneril and Regan, he was the second best to Edgar. He too sought a desire to overturn customs. He wanted to be acknowledged by his father as worthy of his love but also recognized through his father’s title, and land. In a soliloquy given by Edmund, he states that he must have his father’s land (Legitimate Edgar, / I must have you land. / Our father’s love is to the bastard Edmund / As to th’ legitimate.” (I.ii.17-19). Shakespeare gives Gloucester the same weakness that Lear has. The inability to see the truth. Which, like Lear, leads to his own death and madness. It was all too easy for Edmund to turn Gloucester’s love for his, legitimate son, Edgar into to feelings to hate. Edmund manipulates Gloucester with a series of lies. Edmund pretends to have a letter written by Edgar that speaks of the Edgars plots to overthrow his father. Gloucester quickly believed it, because his vanity leads him to believe his true heir would plot against him. After this Gloucester continued to eat up the lies Edmund was feeding him about Edgar. It went as far as Gloucester causing his own son to flee and act like a mad man to survive. Shakespeare makes Gloucester suffer for his sins, even though his sin was committed years ago, unlike Lear. Gloucester is blinded, in a violent scene. The readers are supposed to believe this blinding was well deserved given the sin he created. Shakespeare really drives his point home by having Edgar say that it was his sin that caused his downfall, “ The gods are just, and of our pleasant vices / Make instruments to plaque us. / The dark and vicious place where thee he got / cost him his eyes.” (V.iii. 204-207).
At the end of the play almost all the characters have died; Lear, Gloucester, Cordelia, Goneril, Regan, Cornwall, and Edmund. The social and political order lies in ruins, while the power is longer desired because of the chaos the kingdom was left in. Shakespeare has Lear and Gloucester die of broken hearts. Yet, given the title as being a bleak play, the readers are left with an almost positive message. The relationship, through its ups and downs, between Lear and Cordelia gives a tender feeling. The play almost reads as if it were a tale about what true love looks like. With Lear, Gloucester, and Edgar learning through their pain and suffering that love will make one a better man. Even though Lear and Gloucester didn’t get a chance to act as better men, Edgar does. Edgar loved his father until the end and never for a second had that love waver. In his final words of the play, he expresses a desire to rule the country and rise to the figure they need. Shakespeare is basically saying that love is the true justice in a world full of chaos. Yes, this is Shakespeare’s bleakest play, but through all the plotting, scheming, death, betrayal, and blinding readers can agree that it is indeed a tragedy. It is a world without justice but love and self-growth live within.