Sorry for the long time between posts, I have been pretty swamped with a few things. I noticed that I have gotten a lot of views on my post about Shakespeare’s use of catharsis. I have decided to post an essay I wrote a while back on King Lear…
For those of you that follow my blog for the horror content, I apologize, but if you give it a look you may be surprised! I mean they rip a guys eyeballs out while he’s still alive! And people thought Saw and Hostile were original….meeeh
The Ties that Bind and the Ones that Cause Pain:
King Lear by William Shakespeare is a tragic tale of betrayal, regret, and personal torment. The title character of the play is an aged king who gives away his kingdom and power to his two disloyal daughters, Goneril and Regan, who deceive Lear with fallacious statements of love and devotion. Cordelia would not participate in this masquerade of false homages and in his rage King Lear banishes the only daughter who truly cares for him. In a series of complex plays for power, family betrayals, and human cruelty Lear must fight to keep his own sanity while everything he has ever known is taken away from him. In the tragic tale of King Lear Shakespeare tries to demonstrate that the people that one cherishes can cause them the most pain and that all the power in the world cannot save them from the grip of human cruelty.
Lear is portrayed as a strong and callous ruler in the opening scene of the play. The King seems to be uncompromising and when he talks people seem to listen. The gathering that Lear calls for his daughters and their suitors is a blatant competition. Lear, who seems to love all three of his daughters has a special place in his heart for Cordelia, the youngest and fairest. At this meeting Lear declares that they all proclaim their love for him, “which of you shall say we say doth love us most?” (Act I, Scene 1, 53). Goneril and Regan both claim that their love for him is vast and Lear gladly accepts their favors and grants them each a third of his kingdom. When it comes time for Cordelia to answer she replies, “unhappy that I am, I cannot heave my heart into my mouth. I love your majesty according to my bond; no more nor less” (Scene I, Act 2, 94-96). Outraged he banishes her and she leaves with the King of France, who she has been promised to. Upon Cordelia’s banishment the remaining two sisters begin to connive and plot against their father, they think his age is causing him to deteriorate and that, “they must do something, and i’ the heat,” (Act I, Scene 1, 312) to ensure that his failing judgment will not affect them, directly.
The major subplot in King Lear also pertains to the love and the potential of betrayal that family has on an individual. The Earl of Gloucester is similarly deceived by his bastard son, Edmund. Edmund cleverly stashes a letter in his pocket upon the entrance of his father knowing that his father would demand to see it. The letter has been fabricated to appear as if it came from Edgar, Gloucester’s legitimate son. The letter’s content is of scandal and betrayal against him, “O villain, villain! His very opinion in the letter! Abhorred villain!” (Act I, Scene 2, 79-80). Edmund then guilefully plays the other side of the conflict to Edgar, “Brother, I advise you to the best; go armed. I am no honest man if there be any good meaning towards you. I have told you what I have seen and heard; but faintly, nothing like the image and horror of it. Pray you, away,” (Act I, Scene 2, 188-192). The ball is in motion, Edmund’s play for power is pitting his father, the Earl of Gloucester against Edgar, his legitimate heir.
As the story unfolds in both the main plot line and the biggest subplot the idea of betrayal and the exploitation of family trust is truly taken to the next level. Lear, now retired from his kingly duties takes his entourage of one hundred men and his beloved fool to stay in the homestead of Goneril and her husband, the Duke of Albany. Goneril turns on him quickly and demands that he and his men leave, “you strike my people, and your disorder’d rabble make servants of their betters,” (Act I, Scene 3, 276-277). Lear is devastated that his own flesh and blood would turn on him so easily, “I am ashamed that thou hast power to shake my manhood thus; that these hot tears which break from me perforce, should make thee worth them. Blasts and fogs upon thee,” (Act 1, Scene 4, 316-322). Lear flees to Regan’s home in the castle of the Duke of Cornwall, after telling Regan of her sister’s terrible treatment of him she replies, “I pray you, father, being weak, seem so. If till the expiration of your month, you will return and sojourn with my sister, dismissing half your train, come then to me,” (Act II, Scene 3, 204-207). Lear cannot believe his ears, both of his remaining daughters have turned against him and seek to shame him and strip away what little power he has left. It is at this point that King Lear begins his terrible descent into madness and takes to a life of vagrancy that is at least free from the hatred of his heathen daughters. Seeking shelter from a terrible storm, a storm that in many ways mimics the turmoil in his own head, Lear and his party stumble across Edgar in the guise of a beggar named Poor Tom.
Edgar has taken such a clever disguise that his own father, the Earl of Gloucester does not recognize him as he says, “our flesh and blood has grown vile, my lord, that it doth hate what gets it,” (Act III, Scene 4, 149-151).When Gloucester comes to rescue Lear from the cold he shows his true loyalty, “Though their injunction be to bar my doors, and let this tyrannous night take hold upon you, yet I have ventured to seek you out, and bring you where both fire and food is ready,” (Act III, Scene 4, 154-159). The saying that no good deed goes unpunished certainly holds true for the ill-fated Gloucester, The Earl of Cornwall, under the guidance of Regan and Goneril brutally rips the eyes from Gloucester’s head. Edgar acts as a contrast to the two villainous sisters and his nobility mirrors that of Cordelia who despite her father’s cruel words never stopped loving him. When Edgar sees his blinded father being led through the street by an old man, he insists that he be his new guide. This show of love and support to Gloucester, who had wrongfully shunned him is something that really reveals his noble character while at the same time making Edmund appear to be viler in comparison.
Edgar is not the only cast out child to make amends with their father, Cordelia arrives in England to stop what her sisters are doing. After finding Lear in bad shape upon her arrival Cordelia pleads, “O my dear father! Restoration hang thy medicine on my lips and let this kiss repair those violent harms that my two sisters have in thy reference made!” (Act IV, Scene 7, 24-27). Lear knows that he has wronged her and tries to make amends with, “You must bear with me. Pray you now, forget and forgive. I am old and foolish,” (Act IV, Scene 7, 84-86). In the play’s final scenes Goneril and Regan bicker about who Edmund, Gloucester’s illegitimate son really is in love with as he has been forming a relationship with both women in his play for power. Goneril poisons Regan and then takes her own life, yet another example of close loved ones having the ability to connive and harm with reckless abandon. Edmund orders Cordelia to a quick execution and Lear, now completely mad with sorrow dies next to her lifeless body. The deposed king dies broken hearted at the feet of the men that stand to inherit England and lead it into a new generation.
The resolution and intertwining of both story arcs provides huge implications on the root of family loyalties, personal honor, and the fate of the entire country of England. In the plays original Quarto version it had an additional scene that made the character of the Duke of Albany more of a major character, in the Folio version more emphasis is placed on Edgar and the young generation of leadership that he represents (Carson). The very portrayal of the madness of King Lear is an interesting and profound achievement for Shakespeare according to Mike Ellison in his article, Literary Analysis Comes to Lear. Ellison states that, “having got more and more deeply into Shakespeare, it is becoming clear that he had a lot of knowledge of what goes on in human nature and how to use that knowledge therapeutically”. The madness of Lear could have been said to be the cause of his daughter’s betraying him, and the need for parental love could be said to have brought Cordelia back to rescue her father.
In conclusion William Shakespeare’s King Lear is a tragic tale of one man’s battle with betrayal and his own sanity. A recurring and powerful theme of the story is that anyone is capable of cruelty and when the cruelty comes from the hands of a loved one it is all the more painful. King Lear’s daughters were so hungry for power that they would strip the old king of what little he had left and Edmund was so jealous and callous that he would start the chain of events that would find his father blinded and dishonored. Shakespeare successfully demonstrates that the people that Lear cherished the most caused him the most pain and that all the power that he had possessed could not save him from the betrayal and wickedness of his own flesh and blood.
Carson, Christie. “The Quarto of King Lear.” Expert Views on the Quarto of King Lear. British Library, n.d. Web. 06 Apr. 2013. <http://www.bl.uk/treasures/shakespeare/lear.html>.
Ellison, Mike. “Literary Analysis Comes to Lear.” The Guardian (pre-1997 Fulltext): Jun 18 1994. ProQuest. Web. 6 Apr. 2013. EPub.
Shakespeare, WIlliam. “King Lear.” Great Books of the Western World Vol. 27. Ed. William G. Clark and William A. Wright. Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica, 1952. 244-283. Print.