The central concern of tragedy has always been to explore the nature of evil in the world; both its existence and the nature of particular types of evil and their effect. If we are to find the meaning of Shakespeare’s tragedies, we must examine how men looked at the problem of evil in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Much of the philosophy which under-pinned the English Renaissance can be traced to the ideas of Aristotle.
It can be argued that the central concern of King Lear is the nature of a particular form of evil: anger.
Aristotle defined anger as: … an impulse, accompanied by pain, to a conspicuous revenge for a conspicuous slight directed without justification towards what concerns oneself or towards what concerns one’s friends.
Aristotle argued that anger always arises from injured self-esteem, from some slight inflicted upon the individual directly or indirectly, there being three kinds of slighting possible: contempt; spite; and insolence. Since a man expects to be respected by his inferiors, he expects those to respect him to whom he is superior in birth, capacity goodness or anything else.
Furthermore, he expects those whom he has treated well, as well as those whom he is now treating well, to respect him. According to Aristotle, then, the man who is slighted by those who he thinks ought to respect him and feel grateful toward him is the more easily offended.
Furthermore, Aristotle pointed out that the slight is most keenly felt if that aspect in which we think ourselves most worthy of consideration is treated slightingly.
Anyone who shows, in speech or action, a tendency to slight rather than praise these qualities upon which we base our self-esteem, will be the recipient of our anger. However, we will be more angry with friends than with others, with those who have previously treated us deferentially and now change, and with those who do not adequately appreciate or return kindness.
He also suggests that the feeble are more given to anger than the strong, and old men rather than the young. Other thinkers, contemporary with Shakespeare, such as Newton, emphasised also the pride that precedes anger and the shame that succeeds it. Newton also explained that while anger harms those against whom it is directed, it harms even more the person in whose heart the passion rises. He suggests that the mind must be reined by reason and curbed by temperance.
There was, then, in Shakespeare’s day an old and firmly founded philosophy of anger, based upon ancient philosophy and medieval reworkings of those ideas. According to this philosophy, pride or self-esteem is the condition in which anger takes its rise, vengeance becomes its immediate object, and some slight, real or imagined, is its cause. Anger is folly; shame its consequence. The sequence of passions is pride, anger, revenge, and, unless madness clouds the reason altogether, shame. Anger hurts him who feels it even more than it hurts the one on whom he seeks revenge. Its consequences are shame on the one hand and rage, fury, frenzy and madness on the other. It is the most destructive of passions; it has indeed something of the essence of all passions.
Whilst the study of anger forms the central focus of King Lear, Shakespeare explores a number of related problems, such as old age. Plutarch argued that whilst many old men seek to escape from the burdens of public life, such an attitude is really the result of sloth. In reality the aged man should give his experience and wisdom to the state; and he is being led by ” sloth and want of courage” when he lays down his burdens.
When Lear enters with his explanation;
Know that we have divided
In three our kingdom; and ’tis our fast intent
To shake all cares and business of our age,
Conferring them on younger strengths, while we
unburden ‘d crawl towards death.
and later concludes his speech by restating his intention and appealing to his daughters:
Tell me my daughters, –
Since now we will divest us both of rule,
Interest of territory, cares of state,
Which of you shall we say doth love us most.
That we our largest bounty may extend
Where nature doth with merit challenge?
he is divesting himself of cares he no longer wishes to carry. It is clearly apparent that he is doing it not in the interests of the recipients of his benefits but because he seeks release from duties that are burdensome.
With his appeal to his daughters to proclaim who loves him most, Lear exposes another weakness; self-love. The problem with self-love is that it subjects a man to flattery, for he needs to have his good opinion of himself sustained. It is difficult to tell the flatterer from the friend, but the basis of judgement is to be found in the fact that the flatterer applies himself to appeal to the passions of the one concerned, while the friend makes the appeal not to passion but to reason. The flatterer is inconstant, the friend constant; the flatterer always says and does what will give pleasure, the friend does not
hesitate to give pain, to offer rebuke or correction, when it is necessary; the flatterer is always ready to speak, the friend is often silent; the flatterer is over-ready and excessive in his promises, the friend is temperate and just and reasonable; the flatterer bustles about but is not ready with genuine service, the friend will dissuade from unjust action but will serve even at great cost to himself.
The excessive and passionate speeches of Goneril and Regan are in all essentials the speeches of flatterers. But Lear, happy in his self-love, demands still more from his ” joy, his youngest daughter”:
… what can you say to draw
A third more opulent than your sisters?
Given this view of flattery, Cordelia’s reply is the only one possible and appropriate for the friend. She can say nothing that will draw a richer third of the kingdom. To her father’s hasty warning she has no option but to add;
Unhappy that I am, I cannot heave
My heart Into my mouth: I love your Majesty
According to my bond; no more nor less.
Lear distributes Cordelia’s dower to his two flattering daughters, and gives away the burdens of state, he retains
The name, and all the addition to a king,
and thus we see that pride will still be panoplied with the trappings of a king. His pride and self-esteem are so mingled with anger and his desire for revenge, in this speech, that they become one.
It is Kent who, once again, tries to check Lear’s rashness by a combination of righteous anger and pleading for the love of Cordelia. Even Lear’s threat to his life does not prevent him from trying to protect Lear from himself. Even as Lear lays his hand upon his sword, Kent exclaims again:
Kill thy physician, and thy fee bestow
Upon the foul disease. Revoke thy gift;
Or, whilst I can vent clamour from my throat
I’ll tell thee thou dost evil.
And now, just as he did to Cordelia, he turns in pride and outrageous anger to revenge himself on his most loyal friend, who, like Cordelia, has refused to play the part of flatterer but has instead insisted upon trying to save him from evil and folly by telling him the truth.
That Lear’s anger has led him to a course that is both evil and foolish is at once evident in the discussion between Goneril and Regan that follows the departure of Cordelia. It is clear that Lear’s outburst reflects a temperament given to habitual anger:
‘Tis the infirmity of his age; yet he hath ever but
slenderly known himself. (Regan)
And Goneril confirms this view:
The best and soundest of his time hath been but rash
It is apparent that in Lear we have the habitually wrathful man, advanced by years to that age when his self-esteem takes offence suddenly, easily, without reason, and without regard to justice. He is indeed the slave to habitual wrath.
Act One: The Gloucester-Edmund sub theme.
In the second scene of Act One the same philosophical themes that were introduced in the first scene are repeated through Gloucester’s relationship with Edmund and his inability to distinguish between honesty and flattery. Again a father is moved by a sense of injured self-esteem to anger, which demands revenge, and seeks to find revenge in an immediate use of power to hurt the one who is supposed to be the author of the injury. Once again, a father is moved by the flattery of an undeserving child to cast off the loyal child and prefer the flatterer in his place. And again, there enters the question of old age and its continued guidance of affairs.
However, there is an interesting difference between Gloucester and Lear. Whilst both respond to what they perceive to be betrayal and ingratitude, Gloucester does not question Edmund’s honesty because he believes that his gratitude to his father, for recognising and accepting him as a son, is of such magnitude that it is beyond question. It is, therefore, “legitimate Edgar”, resentful of his father’s recognition of Edmund, who seeks to injure him.
Ironically, even as we see Edmund forging his plot, Gloucester comes on stage regretting the deeds of the king:
Kent banish’d thus! and France in choler parted!
And the king gone tonight subscrib’d his power!
Confin’d to exhibition! All this done
Upon the gad!
and immediately falls himself into the same unreasoned anger.
Re-read the scene between Edmund and Gloucester and explore the similarities and differences in the way in which Gloucester and Lear respond to the apparent ingratitude of Edgar and Cordelia.
Look carefully at the duologue between Edgar and Edmund and try to explain why Edgar is also so easily convinced by Edmund.
ACT ONE, SCENES THREE AND FOUR: AN EXPLORATION OF
This scene further explores the idea of perceived ingratitude. Superficially, Goneril has some justification for her anger at Lear’s behaviour. The charges she makes upon her entrance are borne out by what we have seen, and her suggestion that if such actions are allowed or encouraged by her father, he is not without blame, would seem fair enough. However, as the scene progresses, it becomes obvious that Goneril’s actions are calculated to enrage Lear in order to promote a response which justifies her demand for him to temper his behaviour and divest himself of the knights, his only remaining symbol of his former status; consequently, it is Lear’s perception that Goneril is not showing the gratitude expected or required that feeds his rage. Subconsciously, Lear begins to realise that he may not have chosen a worthy person on whom to bestow his favours: she is not grateful for the benefits bestowed and he is not receiving the gratitude expected. Shakespeare was obviously influenced in his views on the concept of gratitude by the Roman playwright and philosopher Lucius Annaeus Senaca the Younger whose plays and writings had been translated and were popular at the time. Seneca, when writing on what he termed Benefiting wrote the following:
I may well say, there is in a, manner nothing more hurtful, than that we know not either how to bestow, or how to take good turns. For it followeth of consequence, that the good turns which are ill bestowed should be ill owed And therefore if they be not requited, it is too late for us to complain, for as much as they were lost in the very bestowing of them. And there is no marvel that among so many and so great vices, there is none more rife than unthankfulness.
Seneca wrote that the first cause of ingratitude is the choice of someone unworthy on whom to bestow our favours: it would seem that this is entirely appropriate to Lear.
Seneca also wrote:
For. The law of benefiting between men is this: that the one must forthwith forget that he has given, and the other must never forget what he has received.
In King Lear we find that the law of benefiting is not observed by either party. Lear continually recounts the good he has done and the gratitude that is owed to him, while Goneril and Regan forget altogether the benefits they have received and fail to be grateful for them. Whilst both the givers and receivers are guilty, it is Lear himself who must bear the greater responsibility; there can be no doubt that he gave, not that which he prized for himself, but that for which he had no further use. Gratitude was not, therefore, due to him for his good turn. However, this does not excuse the behaviour of Goneril and Regan: whilst Lear should not expect gratitude, their behaviour is indeed shameful because they show no gratitude whatsoever to Lear for giving them what they so eagerly desired. Since it is ingratitude that particularly injures our self-esteem, the result is the rousing of violent anger in the one who feels that his own good deeds have not been appreciated. His exiling of Cordelia was in response to her perceived slighting of him; now at Goneril’s first suggestion that he restrain his followers a little, he feels contempt thrown upon his own goodness:
Ingratitude, thou marble-headed fiend,
More hideous when thou show’st thee in a child
Than the sea-monster.
and, the depth of his hurt and his anger is more than evident in his cursing of Goneril:
…that she may feel
How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is
To have a thankless child!
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