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How effectively does Shakespeare present Lear's loss of power in the play?

Categories: PowerShakespeare

In the opening scenes of the play, King Lear is the character who wields the most power. However throughout the play he gradually loses his power and this is presented very effectively by Shakespeare. Shakespeare portrays this loss through the characters language, Lear’s and other’s, and certain symbolic events such as the loss of Lear’s knights. At the beginning of the play, Lear’s language displays his power and authority. His language is forceful and the line, “Come not between the dragon and his wrath”, portrays his power as he compares himself to a dragon, a very powerful beast.

It also shows how he can issue demands without a moment’s hesitation. As King, Lear’s servants and courtiers attend to his every need. Lear’s first line of the play is a demand to Gloucester to “Attend the lords of France and Burgundy”, which is immediately obeyed. This again portrays Lear’s power. Another part of Lear’s language that depicts his power is the use of the ‘royal we’.

He describes Cordelia as “our joy”, which shows his status as King by the use of the royal we. Therefore Shakespeare effectively presents Lear’s loss of power by emphasizing Lear’s initial power through his language in the opening of the play.

This emphasis on the vast amount of power Lear wields in the play’s opening makes the audience all the more aware of the loss when it occurs. Also in the first scene of the play, the way that other characters address Lear shows his authority.

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They perform his wishes and address him with formal titles. When Lear issues his command to Gloucester his immediate response is “I shall, my Lord”. This shows the respect the characters have to show towards the King, emphasising his power.

The characters also use flattery when addressing Lear, which shows his power as they are trying to stay in his favour by appealing to his ego. When Kent tries to make Lear realise his error in dismissing Cordelia, he addresses him as “Royal Lear, whom I have ever honoured as my king, loved as my father”, which combines flattery with respect to try and win Lear over to Kent’s way of thinking. This line shows how Kent is fearful of Lear’s power and is being tentative in putting his point across as Lear could very easily punish Kent as he is the omnipotent King.

Gonerill’s and Regan’s speeches demonstrate the need to flatter the powerful King clearly in the opening of the play. Their language is full of exaggerated flattery in an appeal to Lear’s ego. He holds the power so they need to impress him. Gonerill claims to love Lear “more than word can wield the matter” with “a love that makes breath poor, and speech unable”, whilst Regan states that Gonerill “comes too short” and goes further to say that she professes herself “an enemy to all other joys ” except for the happiness she finds “in your dear higness’ love”.

These ridiculously extravagant and artificial sentiments show how they feel the need to flatter their father and king, thus Shakespeare is again effectively presenting his loss of power by emphasising his vast amount of power at the beginning of the play through the other characters need to appeal to his vanity in order to remain in his favour. However, Lear does not remain powerful for long, not even during the first act. His changing language throughout the course of the play highlights his loss of power and change of nature. As early as act one scene four, Lear’s demands are not being met and his authority is not being recognised.

In this scene Lear has to ask three times for someone to “call hither my fool”. Whereas before Lear renounced his throne to his daughters his every need would be immediately catered for, now he is forced to wait and be ignored. Later in act two scene four, Lear asks for the company of Regan and Cornwall he is again ignored by them. Lear is not used to this treatment and his shock comes through in the line “Deny to speak with me? “. He tries to find excuses for his daughter and her husband as though he cannot quite believe that anyone would willingly ignore him.

At this point he has not accepted or realised that he has lost his power. However this realisation soon presents itself to Lear. When he finally realises later in this scene that his two daughters have betrayed him and that he made a foolish decision, the line “I gave you all” portrays his sense of regret and sorrow. Before, Lear did not regret anything, not even his banishment of Cordelia, so this line clearly depicts a change in Lear’s nature. Lear’s power loss is so extreme that he doesn’t even recognise himself as a King, asking “What’s he? when he is addressed as “your grace” in act three scene four. By the time Lear is reunited with Cordelia his use of language has changed dramatically. This is shown through his begging of Cordelia to “forget and forgive”. Before his loss of power, he never sought the forgiveness of anyone, so this request emphasises this loss. Lear’s final words in the play clearly show the change in his authority and nature. He gives his thanks whereas before he would just give his orders, and his request for the other’s present to “Look there”, completely contrasts his first appearance in the play.

In the opening scene all attention was on him as he asked his daughters to declare their love for him. Now however he averts their attention to his daughter, a stark contrast emphasising the change Lear has undergone. Thus Lear’s loss of power is clearly shown by Shakespeare through his change of language and nature from the beginning to the end of the play. With Lear’s loss of power Shakespeare bestows on Lear the ability to feel empathy and sympathy for others and his language and actions show this.

After being left out in the open, he begins to consider the welfare of others, asking “How dost my boy? ” and even for others to “go first”. Lear even learns to consider the welfare of the whole nation of those who suffer in poverty. He feels that whilst he was King he took “too little care of this” issue. This is a vast change in his nature that emphasises his loss of power as while he was king he never behaved in this way. After losing power, Lear’s nature completely changes and he becomes more empathetic and regretful making him a more sympathetic character to the audience.

This presents Lear’s loss in a more compassionate way, as now the audience truly feels the tragedy of the situation, far more than if Lear remained the egotistical and self obsessed character he is in the beginning of the play. Before Lear divides up his kingdom, Shakespeare presents him as an egotistical, vain and foolish man. In the opening scene of the play the other characters, in particular Gonerill and Regan, flatter him with artificial sentiments such as “I love you more than word can wield the matter”.

Also Lear’s method in deciding which daughter should get what land by declaring their love for him displays his conceit and self-obsession. The fact that the other characters feel the need to flatter him stresses Lear’s egotism and vanity as well as his lack of wisdom. This serves as a contrast to after he hands over his power to his daughters and begins to be a far more compassionate character. In the final scenes of the play Lear has no power and is able to be imprisoned, however he has gained much wisdom and discarded his vanity.

He realises the error of his ways and that he can even find some happiness imprisoned with Cordelia. He also diverts attention away from himself, requesting others to “look there” towards Cordelia. Therefore Shakespeare uses Lear’s egotism as another effective device in order to represent Lear’s power loss; when Lear loses his power he also loses his vanity. The language and actions of the other characters also depicts Lear’s loss of power. After he divides up his kingdom they no longer flatter or fear him due to his lack of power, or even perform his requests.

Gonerill “will not speak with him” when he desires it and even instructs her servants to “put on what weary negligence you please” as early in the play as act one scene three. Oswald does not even address Lear as a King or even an individual, merely “my lady’s father”. This clearly shows the lack of respect even the servants have for Lear as he has lost his power and their allegiance is to his daughters. When Kent is put in the stocks in act two, he complains that as Lear’s servant he should not be treated with respect. However Regan states that “being his knave” means that she should treat him poorly.

This shows how Lear has no real power anymore and that even his children do not recognise his authority. The way in which Shakespeare presents the difference in the way Lear is addressed and treated between the first scene and the rest of the play highlights his loss of power effectively. The loss of Lear’s knights is one of the most obvious signs of Lear’s loss of power. Shakespeare placed great emphasis on Lear’s “reservation of an hundred knights” and they have a mention in the opening scene of the play. They are an outward symbol of Lear’s power and when they are taken from him it signals his realisation that he has lost all power.

The knights are the primary cause of the disagreement between him and Gonerill in act one as his “hundred knights” are “disordered”, “deboshed” and “bold” and treat her court like a “tavern or brothel”. Again his “hundred knights” are emphasised when she questions whether it is a good idea to let him keep them. Finally Gonerill and Regan reduce his knights from a hundred to none, prompting Lear to realise his folly and the cruel ways of his daughters. Also the rapid way in which the sisters reduce his knights emphasises his loss of power.

Shakespeare reduces his train in just a few lines and uses short sharp sentences to reduce the knights to “twenty? ten? Or five? ” until finally he has none. The loss of all hundred knights emphasises Lear’s loss of power, as the audience can clearly see the material effects of his loss and Shakespeare’s emphasis on the “hundred knights” throughout the play further stresses this point. Lear’s loss of power is emphasised by the other characters gain in power, particularly Gonerill, Regan and Edmond; as Lear loses power others gain power resulting in a power shift.

Even as early as the end of the first scene, the two sisters are adopting royal language such as the use of the ‘royal we’ in the phrase “Prescribe not us our duty”. After Lear has given Gonerill and Regan the kingdom, they become far more powerful than him and are able to give him orders, take away his knights and are the characters that everyone has to obey. Whereas before they would fear Lear, the people now fear the two sisters. Regan and Cornwall exert their power notably over Gloucester in what is one of the most horrific scenes in any of Shakespeare’s works.

In act three scene seven, Gloucester is punished for helping the old King and this shows clearly how the power has shifted from Lear to his daughters. It is also interesting to see that it is Regan and not Cornwall who is the most enthusiastic about exerting her power over Gloucester and she even kills one of the servants after demanding “give my thy sword”. Regan does not even allow her father the basic human rights which shows how little power he has, even as a man, and punishes those who try and give him some form of humanity. Edmond too becomes more and more powerful after his betrayal of both his brother and then father.

He too begins to use the ‘royal we’ and uses the sisters in order to gain power. He also takes on his fathers title as he becomes more powerful, which is a clear and effective signal to the audience of the power shift. Just two scenes after his father’s torture, Edmond is referred to by Gonerill as “My most dear Gloucester”, whereas before he was just Edmond. His power contrasts that of Lear, particularly in the closing of the play when he has the ability to order the death of Lear and Cordelia and to order others to “Take them away”. This shows his vast amount of power, as he is easily able to issue demands.

Therefore the gain in power of others in the play serves as a contrast to Lear’s loss of power; an effective way that Shakespeare presents Lear’s loss as the audience is made more aware of the loss of power, due to emphasis on the contrast between Lear’s loss and other’s gains in power. Perhaps the most apparent symbol of Lear’s loss of power is through his loss of power over his mind. At the beginning of the play Lear wields much power and Shakespeare has it that Lear defines himself through his power; after all the play is called ‘The Tragedy of King Lear’ and not just Lear.

It is therefore possible that the cause of his madness is the loss of his kingly powers as well as the betrayal of his daughters. Lear only realises he is powerless after his knights are taken from him. He then realises that in giving his daughters his kingdom he has allowed them to take all of his power, and fears that he “shall go mad”. This foreshadows what is to become of Lear and is effective in building up a sense of further loss for Lear, highlighting his powerlessness. Read about foreshadowing in King Lear essay

Of course Lear does become mad due to the betrayal of his daughters and he becomes obsessed with this betrayal thinking that this action must be the reason for all other problems as shown when Lear asks the disguised Edgar “Didst thou give all to thy daughters? “. He becomes so confused that he does not even know who he is at times asking “What’s he? “. He becomes merely a shadow of his former self, attempting to command the storm in act three to “Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! “. He can no longer command his subjects or even family, so his desperate attempt to command nature presents him as a pitiful character.

He is also presented as pitiful earlier, in act two scene four, when he issues his hollow threats to his daughters that he “will do such things”. This line again demonstrates his lack of power as “what they are, yet I know not”. When Lear is reunited with Cordelia he does not even recognise her, thinking she is a “spirit”. It is only after he realises who she is, that “the great rage… is killed in him”. Henceforth, Shakespeare’s presentation of Lear’s madness is effective in presenting his loss of power as it shows how he has not just lost his power over others but also, more tragically, himself.

As well as this, Lear’s descent into madness further intensifies the tragedy already felt by the audience, as after Lear loses his power Shakespeare presents him as a compassionate character that the audience is able to feel sympathy for. King Lear very quickly loses his power during the play and Shakespeare presents this incredibly effectively through a variety of techniques such as through his mastery of language and the symbolic importance of events such as the loss of the “hundred knights”. However, good does come of Lear’s power loss.

Without the vast amount of power he had as King, Lear is able to become a far more compassionate person and realise the errors in his ways, allowing the audience to feel sympathy for him and the full extent of Shakespeare’s tragedy. When he regains Cordelia, his mind is content and joyful; even without power and having been captured, they will “sing like birds”. Through his loss of power Lear gains much, but more tragically than his original losses, these new gains are lost to him with the death of his beloved Cordelia. This event induces his final loss; the loss of his own life.

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How effectively does Shakespeare present Lear's loss of power in the play?. (2020, Jun 02). Retrieved from

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