Shakespeare's Sympathy for Lear in King Lear

Categories: William Shakespeare

'King Lear' is a tragedy revolving around the central character King Lear, therefore the sympathy created must be meant for this character and his parallel Gloucester in order for the play to conform to the typical pattern of a tragedy play. Shakespeare creates sympathy for Lear by portraying him as an extremely powerful and foolish man thus heightening the sympathy felt by the audience when this powerful, foolish king transforms to an insignificant but wise man. Upon gaining further understanding on how the play would have been received by the audience at the time it was written, the sympathy created has a higher impact, as a lot of the language and imagery refers to the hierarchical order of the Elizabethan society.

Throughout the play Shakespeare explores Elizabethan beliefs and laws using the text to express his stance on them. He manipulates these popular beliefs at the time to create sympathy with the audience as they are directly affected. An example of this is of the imagery of the animals to describe the daughters as evil as the audience at the time would strongly believe in the hierarchical order and understand the meaning of the imagery clearly.

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Throughout the play the sympathy is created in conjunction with justice, when the treatment to Lear is justified the less sympathy is felt amongst the audience thus the sympathy increases as the treatment towards Lear is so severe and beyond justification.

The resulting sympathy felt throughout the play is due to the balance of tragedy and justice in the play.

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ARISTOTLE (On The Art Of Poetry): 'It follows in the first place that good men should not be shown passing from prosperity to misery, for this does not inspire fear or pity, it merely disgusts us. Nor should evil men be seen passing from misery to prosperity.'

Aristotle's take on tragedies gives an insight to why sympathy is felt for Lear towards the end of the play and not so much in the beginning. However according to Aristotle's theories we shouldn't feel much sympathy towards Lear as it is his own mistakes that are the cause of his misfortune, this is untrue to 'King Lear' as the fine line between good and evil has become less abrupt since 320 BC when Aristotle stated this and in the time 'King Lear' was written (the Elizabethan era) the audience would have been more appreciative of Lear's attempt to change his previous bad nature.

ARISTOTLE (On The Art Of Poetry): 'This is the sort of man who is not conspicuous for virtue and justice, whose fall into misery is not due to vice and depravity, but rather to some error'

Aristotle's description on a form of tragic character is very fitting to Lear as the beginning of his down fall is to his flawed character; his lack of judgement.

Shakespeare uses evident changes in this play; changes in characters behaviour, changes in language, changes in beliefs; all resulting in changes in the degree of sympathy felt. Language is a very important aspect in a play not only its content but also the way in which it is presented and delivered to the audience. The punctuation can in turn affect the flow and pace of the text and is used in this way to give an insight into the circumstances of the play or the state of mind of the character. An example of this is the apparent change in Lear's language as he yields to a state of madness. As the use of punctuation increases the sentences become shorter and the flow breaks down and the pace increases thus giving an impression of lack of control (inciting his mad state of mind). Contrasting to the punctuation in Lear's text at the start if the play as it is very controlled suggesting his feelings of control creating more sympathy amongst the audience as has lost his control over his life and is from that point not responsible for the further tragic events that take place.

As stated earlier Shakespeare's use of change is very important in creating sympathy the way in which Lear's treatment towards the others characters differentiates from the beginning and the end of the play emphasises his change in character and reflects the change in the level of sympathy felt. Lear is introduced as a respected character amongst his loyal allies Gloucester, Kent and Edgar so when they feel such sympathy towards Lear it is portrayed to the audience that this sympathy is most deserving as it is hard for them to feel pity for someone who they once held at highest regard and because these characters are understood by the audience as good people. For example when Edgar slips out of his role of Poor Tom when he is so overcome by pity for Lear and what he has been reduced to, this sympathy felt by Edgar is so prominent that it encourages the audience to instantly feel sympathy for Lear also.

Lear's irrational responses to the truth, with the dismissal of Kent and Cordelia creates sympathy when he eventually realises he should ask for there forgiveness thus this contrast in his treatment to the same characters in different point of the play creates sympathy when he realises he is just a man and is no better than the other characters. The fact that he doesn't seek revenge on Regan, Goneril, and Edgar due to the restraint he learns for the almost virtuous Cordelia shows that he has reformed and is willing to learn, making Cordelia tragic death very undeserving towards Cordelia and Lear because as the play develops the tragic events that occur outweigh his inept decisions

The madness of King Lear is the pinnacle of the play as it reflects upon the cruelty of human nature and what mental anguish this cruel treatment can cause, it is also the concept that causes Lear to change into a better man as his madness causes him to be self analytical and self critical and realise his errors. Shakespeare uses different types of madness for different purposes in the play the fools' foolish language and riddles give the impression of madness but in actual fact has an underlying objective clarity. The pretence of madness by Edgar as a disguise and a way to get close to Lear to help him see sense and Lear's own madness derived from his fixation with his daughter's behaviour and his own misjudgement. In all three cases the use of madness by Shakespeare are fairly ironic as madness actually creates sanity and clarity.

LEAR: 'Didst thou give all to thy two daughters? And art

Thou come to this?'

Lear's character has emotionally developed somewhat from the beginning s he has now pinpointed that his troubles started once he had given everything to his daughters but he still doesn't hold himself responsible for this and blames his daughters or similar characters for all the tragedy in the world and that everyone's downfall is due to the same circumstances of his own. He is still self-obsessed and hasn't learnt to emphasise with others problems.

In Act 1 Lear is introduced as a momentous king but with a clear lack of objective judgement and an extremely obstinate personality. Even before Lear enters the stage aspects of his traits are revealed through the conversation between Kent and Gloucester.

KENT: 'I thought the King had more affected the Duke of Albany than Cornwall.'

Telling the audience of Lear's tendency to favouritism, a poor quality in a King.

GLOUCESTER: 'It did always seem so to us: but now, in the division of the kingdom, it appears not, which of the dukes he values most,'

Showing that Gloucester believes that the one who receive the most kingdoms is most liked by the king, this is representational of Gloucester's, and in turn Lear's, superficiality, as Gloucester is a parallel of Lear so and flaws of Gloucester appear in Lear. So Gloucester's depraved description of Edmund in relation to how quickly he changes his opinion of his sons is a reflection on Lear's own irrationality when he so readily turned against his once favourite daughter Cordelia thus further establishing Lear and Gloucester as parallels. The treatment from his three daughters and the way in which he receives it shows Lear as a father and shows that through his status and power he has lost a sense of who he really is (the Lear at the ed of the play) and portrays how due to this power he's become blind to the truth (Cordelia and Kent) and blinded by false niceties (from Regan and Goneril).

This Act sees the introduction of the subplot mimicking the mistakes made by Lear through Gloucester; this is the act in which Goneril, Regan and Edmund are revealed to the audience as villains making Lear's error of judgement more apparent setting the audience up to feel more sympathy when Lear realises his mistakes. In the beginning of this first act Shakespeare's representation of Lear leaves the audience feeling little or no sympathy for him when the daughters begin to plot against him as Lear seems quite deserving of losing his power as his intent was only to off load his responsibility and not to help his daughters.

'Meantime we shall express our darker purpose.'

Expressing that Lear himself understands his behaviour is bad and doesn't care and unwilling to change, no sympathy is felt for the Lear at this point in the play.

'To shake all cares and business from our age,'

Lear's language used in this act depicts him as selfish and devious so when it is discovered that the two daughters are deceiving him there seems to be a justice done. The audience can understand on a level the resentment the daughters Goneril and Regan feel towards him due to the established bad traits he possesses as a father. But as they increasingly get more malicious sympathy rises for Lear as it becomes apparent he is not as powerful as once thought, and his error of judgement could be due to his incompetence, he is now vulnerable and cant make many decisions alone as he has got rid of his guidance (Kent) and he is out numbered by his daughters therefore sympathy towards Lear increases as he becomes weak and loses control of his life as it is a complete contrast to Lear at the start of the act that the audience felt no sympathy for. As Lear achieves realisation and clarity through his madness and shows his remorse for his behaviour as a King and father more sympathy is felt as he has transformed into a good person and good people don't deserve bad treatment therefore what happens to Lear at the end of the play is unjustified as he is reformed and is a tragic end.

Act 2 develops the sub plot further highlighting Gloucester's moral blindness and gullibility in respect to how quickly he interchanges his opinions of his sons. Shakespeare uses dramatic irony as the audience can see Gloucester's views are directly opposite to the truth. This blindness to the truth is highlighted to emphasise Lear's own inept decisions in Act 1. Lear's errors in the first Act are further explored hear as the loyalty shown by Kent when he abuses Oswald proves how irrational Lear's banishment of Kent was. In this Act the imagery used by Shakespeare is very important in the construction of sympathy.

When Lear is cast out by both of his daughters the imagery of the loss of repute clothing is very representative of Lear's recent loss of power this change of clothing is important in another way as it is a factor that leads Lear to his realisation state of mind at the end of the play as this helps Lear see himself as a man and not a king, as when he saw himself as a king his self view was clouded by his status and representational clothes. Shakespeare try's to show how tightly clothes were linked to status at the time. Lear, once the unknowingly dependent character in Act 1, is exiled by Regan in Act 2, after having already left Goneril's inhospitality he is alone cast out into the symbolic storm to face his inevitable madness. Lear is on the point of a breakdown; this becomes most apparent through the context of Lear's 'O reason not need!' speech;

LEAR: 'Allow not nature more than nature needs,'

Contrary to the viewpoint of the old greedy Lear he is now protesting to the two daughters how he feels about the way they have treated him then following with the lone statement;

LEAR: 'Man's life is as cheap as beast's. Thou art a lady;'

Stating their manipulating attitude of his daughters towards men (their hierarchical order betters). And ironically calls his daughter a lady, Lear recognises his daughters deceitful nature and the way in which they're presentation; their clothes and insincere manner manipulate others. The clothes worn by the daughters, comes under much scrutiny during this speech relating to their greedy nature that they want more than they need;

LEAR: 'Why, nature needs not what thou gorgeous wear'st,

Which scarcely keeps thee warm. But for true need-

You heavens, give me that patience, patience I need!'

LEAR: I will have such revenges on you both

That all the world shall - I will do such things -

What they are yet I know not, but they shall be

They shall be the terrors of the earth! You think I'll weep,

No, I'll not weep. Storm and tempest.

I have full cause of weeping, but this heart

Shall break into a hundred thousand flaws

Or e'er I'll weep. O fool I shall go mad.'

The begging tone alone with the repetition of the words patience and need and the use of an exclamation mark show Lear's increasing frustration and anger as the daughters drive him to destruction. Lear's request to the gods for patience shows his true desperation for patience as it was something he didn't need or value before his daughters deceit. Lear makes references to his age but it is clear this is not for his daughters benefit (as the are beyond emotion and empathy) and is for the audiences benefit only. At the start of this speech Lear's tone is that of an angry one then results in a sad desperate tone Lear is already emotionally exhausted and wants to breakdown but still doesn't recognise his errors and is still full of pride and would rather be angry than weep he doesn't to lower himself to there level (as women cry to manipulate, which is something he and many people believed at that time, they also believed women were fairly monstrous creators that used there week exterior to manipulated men).

The fact the audience would comprehend this viewpoint on the female nature means that more sympathy would be felt towards Lear as they are in agreement with him and as stated previously that the more malicious and unnaturally the two daughters are portrayed the higher the sympathy for Lear as he increasingly becomes the victim. The audience feels sorry for Lear, as he is alone with the daughters and the power he gave them overtaking him.

He makes empty threats illustrating his confusion a sudden increase of sympathy for Lear as he is stops himself mid threat as he is abruptly hit with the realisation that he is powerless. The last line of the speech when he tells the fool he feels he will go mad shows Lear is starting to awaken to what is happening, it shows a recognition of his true feelings, however the audience are already aware of Lear's forthcoming madness trough the pleading tone and punctuation of the last half of the speech quoted above. The speech begins with long flowing sentences, but an increases in dashes and other punctuation (fragmented sentences) towards the end of the speech suggest a lost of control.

Updated: May 03, 2023
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Shakespeare's Sympathy for Lear in King Lear essay
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