Lear is the title character of the play, and Shakespeare finely crafts his presentation to manipulate audience sympathies and reflect significant changes in the character. Lear is presented through his own language and the language of other characters, such as the Fool and Kent. Often the opinions of another character will contrast with that of Lear, offering us an objective view of the King’s behaviour. The way he is presented is changed constantly throughout the play, and this can be seen through the close analysis of several key scenes.
Lear does not appear in the very first scene of the play, but is discussed by his courtiers, Gloucester and Kent. They speculate on the division of the kingdom, and who the King favors most out of two dukes…
‘I though the King had more affected the Duke of Albany than Cornwall’
The fact that these two nobles spend their time discussing the King shows us his importance, and the importance of his decisions.
We learn from the discussion that the King’s thoughts have become difficult to predict.
The function of beginning the play without Lear is that it shows his status in comparison to the nobility. When Lear makes his entrance, Gloucester ends his conversation abruptly and announces that ‘the king is coming’. Lear’s power is reflected by the reaction to his appearance – immediate silence and respectful attentiveness. Later in the play Lear’s entrance will command no such respect, but here it is clear and immediate. Shakespeare presents him in this sudden and dramatic entrance as a powerful and decisive King, who feels no need to greet the other characters but instead swiftly issues the other characters with instructions:
‘Attend the lords of France and Burgundy, Gloucester’.
Shakespeare crafts Lear’s dialogue so that he speaks to his subjects either in short, decisive commands – ‘Give me the map’ – or in grand, sweeping statements – ‘Although last and least, to whose young love the vines of France and milk of Burgundy strive to be intressed’. His every word is carefully chosen and there is no hesitation in his speech- this demonstrates to the audience that Lear is confident and knows his own mind.
Shakespeare presents Lear in the first act as having his own secret agenda. he admits to having a ‘darker purpose’ and explains his ‘fast intent’ to the court. The phrase ‘darker purpose’ hints that Lear masks his true objectives behind a more cautious public agenda. Shakespeare portrays Lear through such comments as a sharp King who considers his position carefully in vital matters, a man who reveals his thoughts only when he deems it to be necessary – who plots his every action. This presentation will fall in sharp and deliberate contrast with Lear’s behaviour later in the play, when he sticks stubbornly to a single, unwise agenda and uses desperate tactics to try to enforce it.
Lear uses a grand and powerful vocabulary; he uses words such as ‘validity’, ‘pleasure’, ‘joy’, ‘strive’ and ‘intressed’, which present him as a cultured man of important words. He certainly seems, from his careful choice of language, to be fully in control of his mind.
Lear’s language is also very grand in his use of full name, and summary of the perceived significance of his courtiers when addressing them: ‘our dearest Regan, wife of Cornwall’. Lear’s definition of the surrounding characters, and his use of third person (the royal ‘we’) when addressing himself, are devices used by Shakespeare to separate the King from his subjects, and emphasise his power and superior status.
Lear’s habitual definition of his courtiers when addressing them will, of course, but used against him in a later act, when a servant defines his simply as ‘my lady’s father’. It can be argued that, like many of Lear’s casual expressions of power, Shakespeare implements this speech pattern specifically so it can be used to signify his fall from grace in the later acts.
Whilst Lear does behave with a good degree of the precision and decisiveness befitting a king in this first act, Shakespeare purposefully brings out his erratic nature with subtlety. Lear’s opening speech in the play contains indications of a lapse in judgement; he makes the announcement that he wishes to ‘[divide] in three our kingdom… to shake all cares and business from our age, conferring them on younger strengths’. This is a rash and unusual decision, and suggests that the monarch is seeking retirement.
Lear is generous towards his daughters Regan and Cordelia, which despite the blatant insincerity of their replies to the ‘love test’ builds our sympathies for Lear – he refers to Regan as ‘dearest Regan’, which implies some affection for his daughter, and his gift of a third of the kingdom to each of his daughters is an alarming, but undeniably generous gift. This portrayal of Lear as an indulgent father is deliberately crafted by Shakespeare to make Lear’s rejection of Cordelia shocking. It makes Lear seem cruel and extreme in his actions, and leads us to question his character.
Lear describes Cordelia as his ‘joy’, and is prepared to give her the largest share of the kingdom, yet only a few lines later he denounces her as a stranger – Shakespeare puts great emphasis on Lear’s love for Cordelia, by leaving her expression of love until last, so that Lear has a chance to compare her to her sisters – ‘our last and least’. Lear separates her from her sisters, giving her special emphasis.
Cordelia also speaks to the audience in several asides, punctuating the comments of her sisters – ‘I am sure my love’s more ponderous than my tongue’. She confessed that she loves her father too profoundly to put her affections into words. By having Cordelia speak to the audience and inform us of her feelings on the love test, Shakespeare allows us to understand her answer in a way that Lear cannot, and allows us to see that Lear’s furious reaction to her words is a terrible mistake on his part.
Lear is presented, in his reaction to Cordelia’s answer, as a foolish, superficial and rash character. Shakespeare deliberately contrasts Cordelia’s simple, honest words – ‘I shall obey you, love you, honour you’ – with the elaborate and hollow statements of her sisters – ‘A love that makes breath poor, and speech unable’ – to further magnify the poor judgement with which Lear acts – His skewed perceptions are represented best in the exchange with Cordelia where he expresses pain at her honesty, which he sees as brutal:
Lear -So young, and so untender?
Cordelia – So young, my lord, and true.
Shakespeare writes this refrain with deliberate simplicity, so the audience can see clearly the disparity between Lear’s perception of Cordelia’s words and her true intent. This portrays Lear as a deluded character, and this trait is made more obvious through Kent’s challenge to his king: he tells Lear that he is ‘mad’ – Shakespeare intends the audience to question Lear’s sanity, and makes it clear to us that the King’s behaviour is truly unusual.
Shakespeare’s portrayal of Lear in this fact act has been of an all-powerful, confident king making a rash and appalling decision, and he ensures that we recognise that this is not an example of Lear’s typical behaviour. Kent states that ‘majesty [has fallen] to folly’, and addresses Lear with terms of reverence in a way that confirms him as one of the King’s most devout followers:
Whom I have ever honored as my king,
Loved as my father, as my master followed
As my great patron followed in my prayers…’
This declaration is intended by Shakespeare to make the audience realise the significance of Cordelia’s rejection by Lear: If it is enough to make Kent question his king’s decision, then Lear must be going wrong. Also, Kent’s words outline the various responsibilities which Lear holds: He is a father to Regan, Gonerill and Cordelia, king of the country, and as a king is supposed to have a connection with God. Shakespeare wants to make it clear what roles Lear holds and what roles Lear plays, before beginning to portray his decline.
Whilst Shakespeare deliberately shows Lear’s actions to be rash, ill-advised and indicative of madness to come, it is important to note that he does not portray Lear as being mentally ill at this point in the play. Lear shows little restraint or perspective in his banishment of Cordelia from the kingdom, and Kent certainly suggests that Lear is ‘mad’, but the king displays unshakable self-confidence and resolve that his actions are justified, which suggests his sanity. This self-confidence is evident when he tells Cordelia:
‘Better thou hadst not been born than not t’have pleased me better’.
This cold, carefully worded statement shows that Lear is in control of his actions, and knows exactly how he feels. Shakespeare presents Lear as in control when he banishes his daughter because it makes the rejection unforgivable, and adds poignancy to Lear’s later reconciliation with Cordelia, where his daughter announces that she has ‘no cause’ to hate her father, even though she clearly does.
Lear is also portrayed as fiercely confident when he describes himself as a ‘dragon’: this image suggests that Lear views his rabid and angry treatment of Cordelia, and general rage, as natural and normal behaviour, equating himself as he does with a mythological creature which breaths fire.
When Kent derides Lear for banishing Cordelia, Lear immediately strikes back, labelling Kent a ‘recreant’ and commanding him to listen on ‘thine allegiance’. Here we see a Lear who is able to command respect from his subjects simply by reminding them of his status as king.
In the first act of the play, Shakespeare portrays Lear as powerful, but rash in his actions: in Lear’s behaviour in this early part of the play, we can see the root of many problems that will follow. The surrounding characters confirm this; Regan notes that Lear has ‘..ever but slenderly known himself’, a confirmation of Lear’s bad judgement – and the sisters predict that Lear’s ‘unconstant starts’ will eventually cause trouble for them as well as Cordelia.
The second act sees Lear enter a transitory state, where he can no longer rely on the instant respect he once commanded and is no longer informed of the activities in his kingdom. Shakespeare portrays his diminished status by having him wonder why Kent has disappeared:
‘Tis strange that they should depart from home and not send back my messenger’.
The audience knows that Kent is in the stocks, and Lear’s ignorance shows to us how he is losing his power over the other characters: he is no longer informed of everything that happens in the kingdom.
It is in this act that the Fool becomes part of Lear’s entourage. The Fool is the voice of reason in the play, and enters as soon as Cordelia leaves. Shakespeare uses the Fool as a substitute for Cordelia; the Fool offers critical comment on Lear’s actions, but does so in the form of rhymes and riddles, and thus avoids Lear’s instant dismissal by speaking his mind cryptically.
It is a comment on Lear’s judgment and character that the only member of his entourage who speaks the truth to him, he has employed as a ‘fool’. It reminds us that we cannot trust Lear’s state of mind, and shows that he has a warped sense of wisdom.
When Lear goes to remonstrate Regan and Cornwall for putting Kent in the stocks, they deny to speak with him. Lear demands that Gloucester summon them:
‘Deny to speak with me? Mere fetches, the images of revolt and flying off.
Fetch me a better answer’.
Lear commands Gloucester to ‘fetch’ him a better answer, but the order is not complied with, and Lear begins to realise his lack of power. This is a contrast to the situation in the first act, where Gloucester complied with Lear’s commands without question. Lear’s response to this insubordination is not decisive, but highly emotional:
‘Vengeance, plague, death, confusion!’
Shakespeare not only shows in this conversation that Lear has lost his power over his subjects, but that he has no effective means of dealing with their rebellion. Lear’s response to Gloucester is meaningless: unlike his anger at Cordelia in the first act, which was expressed with the same emotional language – ‘For by the sacred radiance of the Sun, the mysteries of Hecate and the night’ – but also backed up immediately with practical decisions – ‘I do invest you jointly with my power’. Lear no longer has this option available to him.
Shakespeare portrays Lear’s fall from authority in various ways in this act of the play. Lear tries to command authority as he once did when king, but slowly begins to realise that without the crown he is just another civilian, even if he does carry the ‘name and all th’addition’ of a king. He tries to spell out his authority to Oswald:
‘Who am I, sir?’
And the servant replies simply that he is ‘My lady’s father’. Shakespeare presents Lear as being appalled at this comment, and bluntly shows how Lear’s loss of the crown has severely dented his command. The effect on the audience is one of shock, as this is the first time that a character has questioned his position as king… until this comment, the title has remained in use. But Lear is now, without his crown, indeed little more than a ‘lady’s father’.
Shakespeare presents Lear as a man who can no longer command authority by citing any of his previous roles in society. Lear tries to spell out his authority to Gloucester – describing himself as ‘the King… the dear father!’, but neither of these titles convince the other character into following his orders. Shakespeare deliberately makes Lear cite his previous claims to authority, in order to demonstrate to the audience how they now command nothing.
Shakespeare, in this act, begins to portray Lear as a desperate individual: a manipulative old man who tries every trick he can concieve to command authority over his daughters. His position as king now forgotten, Lear begins to stress with increasing regularity the bond between father and daughter, using it as his principal weapon in the fight to have his daughters accommodate him, and his one hundred knights.
When Regan announces that she is glad to see her father, Lear states:
‘Regan, I think you are. I know what reason
I have to think so. If thou shouldst not be glad,
I would divorce me from thy mother’s tomb,
Sepulch’ring an adultress’.
Here Lear tells his daughter that if she were not pleased to see him, he would immediately assume she was illegitimate, and shun his dead wife’s grave for being unfaithful. This is an extreme and emotional view of the father-daughter relationship, and Shakespeare makes it deliberately vivid in order to draw attention to Lear’s increasing desperation.
If the change in the character had not been made clear enough already, Shakespeare makes Lear seem truly aged and pathetic in the scene where he begs his daughter for accomodation:
‘Dear daughter, I confess that I am old;
Age is unnecessary; on my knees I beg
That you’ll vouchsafe me raiment, bed, and food’.
This can be interpreted in two different ways. If Shakespeare intends Lear to be honest in his begging, then it marks the lowest point yet for the character, now forced to beg to a person who once referred to him as ‘my lord’. If Lear is supposed to be deceiving his daughter, putting on a false display of humble nature in order to gain what he desires, then it still represents a low point, as he now needs to resort to a humiliating deception in order to gain shelter for the night. Either way, it is Shakespeare’s intention for audiences to be shocked at the sight of Lear, the former king, now begging on his knees for such bare necessities, even if this act is meant sarcastically by Lear. Learn about role of the Fool in King Lear
Regan responds by telling her father that he is playing ‘unsightly tricks’. In this comment Shakespeare reinforces the audience’s perception of Lear and shows that Regan is now willing to criticise her father openly.
With all his claims to power seemingly ineffective, Lear turns to the ‘gods’ to provide him with the strength to live through his dark state. Lear makes reference to his connection with the gods early in the play, but Shakespeare now puts heavier emphasis on this relationship with the divine for a number of reasons. When Lear realises Regan is possibly in league with Gonerill, he speaks to the ancient gods:
‘You heavens, give me that patience, patience I need.
You see me here, you gods, a poor old man…
If it be you that stirs these daughter’s hearts,
Against their father, fool me not so much
To bear it tamely. Touch me with noble anger’
Shakespeare uses Lear’s speech to the gods as a device; a way of allowing Lear to talk of his situation in third person, and as a way of offering an insight into his thoughts, in a way that reminds the audience that Lear is descending into madness. Lear refers to himself as ‘old man’ – now forced to come to terms with his own vunerability. Shakespeare portrays Lear in this scene as a man angrily coming to terms with his situation, and finding it so unreal his only course of action is to blame it on the ‘heavens’. The audience are intended to have a sympathetic reaction to this display of mental anguish.
The focus on the ‘gods’ also emphasises Lear’s mortality – Shakespeare does everything he can in this scene to make Lear seem like a frail and pathetic old man, to the point when he tries to summon strength from the gods to stop himself from crying:
‘Let not women’s weapons – stain my man’s cheeks’
In this request Lear is shown to be a broken man: he needs divine intervention to prevent himself from breaking down in tears, such is his emotional instability.
Shakespeare portrays Lear’s inablity to comply with the realities of the new kingdom in a speech which the character makes against his daughter Gonerill. Lear outlines a fantasy of living a life in the wilderness, outside the boundaries of society:
‘I abjure all roofs and choose
To wage against the enmity o’ th’air,
To be a comrade with the wolf and owl,
Necessity’s sharp pinch’.
Having tried everything in his power to assert himself in a world changed by his decisions, Lear now threatens to live a life of painful poverty. He dreams of a life sharply in contrast to his life as the king. Shakespeare uses the word ‘pinch’ because it has connotations of a person pinching themselves to wake from a dream; the implication is that the horrors of poverty may alter Lear’s perspective and lead to him escaping his current situation.
Shakespeare has Lear describe a life in the harsh outdoors as a state where he would become a ‘comrade with the wolf and owl’: a state where one’s humanity would be so stripped away that he could relate to surrounding animals. Shakespeare shows poverty to be a state which would render all of Lear’s roles useless: being a king, father or man offers no protection from ‘necessity’s sharp pinch’. Shakespeare still presents Lear as a man who condemns himself to his own fate, as Lear soon finds himself in the situation he envisions.
In act three, scene two, Lear is turned away by Regan and Cordelia and finds himself wandering the heath in the outside storm. In this part of the play, Lear is portrayed as being fully deranged:
he wanders through the storm, shouting at it, commanding it:
‘Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks!’
This behaviour can be interpreted as Lear’s manic attempts to reassert his power in an outside world where society will not remind him of his true state of powerlessness: he is left to fully indulge his thirst for kingship, acting as if he were a master of nature. The storm can also be seen as a facet of Lear himself: Shakespeare sometimes uses weather conditions as a comment on the state of his characters, and it could be argued that in his obsession with the storm, Lear is actually becoming lost in the ‘storm’ of his own mind: now also chaotic and without control.
Lear is portrayed by Shakespeare as a lost and unsure individual. The character is now torn between a painful awareness of his own dire situation and a delerious fantasy of controlling it:
‘Rumble, thy bellyful; spit, fire; spout, rain!
Nor rain, wind, thunder, fire are my daughters…
Here I stand your slave, a poor, infirm, weak and despised old man’
His comments on the ‘fire and rain’ are clearly intended as commands, as they are as short and directly written as Lear’s commands in the first act. Shakespeare now tries to engender some sympathy for Lear, as he clearly loses control of his mind and describes himself in negative and self-pitying terms. Shakespeare now emphasises Lear’s age even more, adding a reference to his head being ‘old and white’ at the end of this diatribe. Lear is being made to look as vunerable as possible, but still retains all of his negative qualities.
Shakespeare wants to engender a sympathetic audience response, but without excusing Lear from what he has done. Lear assesses his situation and proclaims:
‘I am a man more sinned against than sinning’
This is Shakespeare’s way of asking the audience whether Lear, despite all his foolish behaviour, truly deserves the punishment that he faces in the wilderness.
Whilst Lear does descend into madness in this third act, it also marks a turning point for his spiritual development. Lear is shown as a man stripped down to only his necessities, who has been taken from the ultimate position of power and plunged into poverty, but who admits that it ‘can make vile things precious’. This line has two significances – Lear has begun to appreciate the small things in life and recognise what is truly important, and Shakespeare is suggesting that, even though Lear has been ‘vile’, there is the possiblity of redemption in his darkness.
Lear certainly becomes more sympathetic in these scenes. He tells the Fool:
‘Poor fool and knave, I have one part of my heart that’s sorry yet for thee’.
Lear is, for once, unselfish and sympathetic towards one of his companions. The Fool is of course a surrogate character for Cordelia, and Shakespeare intends for there to be a bitter irony in Lear’s good treatment of the Fool, when he was unwilling to extend the same treatment to his most beloved daughter.
Lear also extends his sympathies to the poor and homeless. He begins to realise that in years of total rule over his kingdom, he has neglected those less fortunate:
‘How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,
Your looped and windowed raggedness defend you
From seasons such as these?
O I have ta’en too little care of this.’
Shakespeare shows us in this prayer that Lear’s state of destitution, whilst driving him mad, has actually driven him towards a better view of the world – that out of his madness there is a chance of sanity, and of redemption. He has, through his own bad experiences, gained an understanding of humanity which he did not previously possess. He shows this through his kindness to the Fool and his growth of concern towards Kent – ‘Prithee, go in thyself, seek thine own ease’.