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The play King Lear in many ways fits in with the Jacobean ideals. It portrays the idea of society being thrown into chaos, by a break down of the hierarchy that was believed to have so much power over the state of the world. In the hierarchy, God came first, then the King, then the Bishops, then the aristocracy, then everyone else. It may have been believed that once Lear divided up the kingdom, he, having the divine right of Kingship but not being recognised as having it, caused society to be disrupted, and the world and weather to turn to chaos.
This is mirrored in how the elements and his family’s condition change.
For it’s time ‘King Lear’ must have seemed quite a radical play, as it deals openly with the disruption of society, and the extent that some people will go to for power. It also shows the King, the person nearest to God as having so many faults and being complacent (” Lear: … crawl unburdened towards death… “) In his duties, which must have been quite a new thing for the audience.
Lear does have many faults and is a difficult and complex character. His life is turned completely upside down because of his own blindness and irresponsibility, and he emerges from his torment a completely changed person.
To begin with we find it very difficult to sympathise with Lear because of his egotism, and ridiculous behaviour. His childish love of flattery, and foolish pride are his downfall, and make him easy to manipulate.
” Goneril: Sir I love you more then word can
Wield the matter, Dearer then eyesight
Space and liberty.”
These wants of flattery and open vows of love suggest that he is insecure and likes to have his ego boosted. He obviously does not know his daughter’s natures very well, suggesting that he is a poor father and has very false values. In allowing himself to be taken advantage of it shows his inability to see things for what they really are. He places a lot of importance on the face value, and appearance of things, which is in a way ironic, as he could not be more wrong. Learn about role of the Fool in King Lear
Lear’s outright rage at Cordelia’s obstinate ‘Nothing’ (showing inadequacy of speech, which is later evident in Lear) drives him to act rashly and without judgement as he disowns her without a moments thought, thinking only of his damaged pride and ego. He does not stop for a moment to reflect or think of other ways to resolve problems
“Kent: I’ll tell thee thou dost evil
Lear: here me recreant
On thy allegiance, hear me”
He completely refuses to listen to Kent and his advice, showing his arrogance, and in banishing him shows us the lack of control he has over his anger.
Later, when Lear becomes more stable, he admits to the fool he had realised that he had treated Cordelia with unkindness “Lear: I did her wrong”.
When he is speaking with the Fool, we see a more tolerant side of Lear’s nature, even humouring the Fools criticism of him,
“Fool: …ever since thou madest thy
Daughter’s thy mother.”
To a Jacobean audience it would be acceptable for the Fool to mock Lear or to point out his failings.
In the next scene when he confronts his daughters, a marked change can be seen in Lear. As he rages at Regan and Goneril, we can see his position has shifted. It is no longer that of power, but of defeat and despair. We can see this as he begins to stumble and cannot find adequate words to convey his anger or feelings.
“Lear: I will have such revenges on you both
That all the world shall – I will do such things –
What the are yet I know not…”
When Lear goes out into the storm he is still into the storm he is still incensed with anger, and as if the Gods had heard him, the storm reflects his emotion. This use of pathetic fallacy is extremely effective, and helps the audience to see Lear’s desperate state. Not only have his daughters disowned him, the have thrown him out in the midst of a violent storm, showing the complete extent of their cruel nature.
In act three scene two, Lear really begins his learning process. He fully understands his situation. He shows this by saying, ” Here I stand, your slave, a poor, infirm, despised old man;” and realises that in the state he is in, he is at the complete mercy of the elements.
“Lear: … You owe me no subscription. Then let fall
Your horrible pleasure.”
Lear begins to realise the true injustice of the situation, for the first time he has to weather a storm, he is unprotected, for probably the first time in his life. At this point we begin to become truly concerned for Lear. His ranting becomes what we see as insane, yet he himself realises he is going mad, “my wits begin to turn”.
Even though he is ranting we can see another subtle change in Lear; he turns to the Fool and asks, “How dost, my boy? Art cold?” this shows that already through his suffering he has began to think of the condition of others around him and not just of himself.
Yet Lear is sill much pre – occupied wit his daughter’s cruelty and is full of self-pity.
“Lear: … In such a night to shut me out…
In such a night as this! Oh Regan, Goneril!
Your kind father, whose frank heart
Gave you all – ”
Before Lear enters the hovel he reflects on the people who have to be in the storm without protection, much like himself earlier, and asks
“Lear: How shall your homeless heads…
Defend you from such seasons such as these?”
This is a very positive breakthrough as he is beginning to see the true state that many must suffer, but it seems that he can only feel this through experiencing the situation himself. He also begins too suffer the consequence of his own inaction as he realises “Oh, I have ta’en to little care of this!”.
However his mind remains constantly on his daughters, as he keeps making references to his own situation throughout his questioning of Edgar/Poor Tom. We can also see that Lear retains his short temper in his rash statements such as, “Death traitor!” when Kent disagrees with him. This is quickly remedied as his thoughts are again turned to the human state. After Edgar/Poor Tom described his fabricated previous life, Lear finally understands the nature of all poverty struck people.
“Lear: … Is man no more then this? …
Unaccomodated man is no more
But such a poor, bare, forked animal as thou art.”
Lear has finally gained the vital knowledge of the condition of others that allows him to empathise and suffer alongside Poor Tom. He proves this by removing his clothes, and also by refusing to leave the hovel unless accompanied by Poor Tom.
Once inside the farmhouse Lear becomes vengeful in his attitude towards his daughters, and begins to devise punishments for them. This shows he is unforgiving, but our sympathies still lie with him because we can see that he is not in his right mind as he rails. Lear then begins to hallucinate, believing that he is in a courtroom, holding a trial for his two eldest daughters. It does not occur to him Lear to take responsibility for his daughter’s actions or that, as a father figure he might have helped to create their cruel natures. Yet in his lunacy we see he is making some serious points, and that he has taken his experience and changed nature to make some philosophical sense.
“Lear: When we are born, we cry that we are come
To this great stage of Fools.”
It is only when he is re – united with Cordelia that we can see the real effect his madness and the change it has brought in him. This is when we see the tender and humbled side of Lear’s character. He is obviously ashamed at the way had treated Cordelia at the beginning of the play and begs her, “I pray you now forget and forgive;” thus realising he had done her wrong.
When Lear and Cordelia are taken prisoner, it is clear that Lear now sees himself purely as Cordelia’s father, and he is able to express himself, in a normal and informal fashion. “Lear: … wipe thine eyes … ”
In all of his speeches a the very end, his thoughts focus on Cordelia, and the terrible grief he is suffering at her death, ” Why should a dog, a horse, a rat have life, and thou no breath at all?” In seeing Cordelia’s death as a terrible injustice, it shows that he can now see with good judgement, but his self-realisation is too late.
I think that Lear’s character is put through a tremendous amount of physical and emotional torment in order to teach him to distinguish between appearances and reality. Into this learning process he also pays more attention to many things which he had not noticed prior to his madness and torment. He also takes much more notice of the suffering of the people who surround him. By the end of the play he can express his emotions, use good judgement, and he does not take things for their face value. This shows how his emergence from a world of blindness and ignorance, and his change in character has enabled him to understand the people surrounding him, human nature, poverty, injustice, things which he had previously not even known existed. He had gained his knowledge too late.
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