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If William Shakespeare’s work can be considered a foundation of literary achievement and theatrical excellence, the theme of love must be one of its fundamental cornerstones. In many Shakespearean plays, love is an effective theme that is carefully sculpted to yield the desired audience reaction or the required moral lesson, and can enhance both comedic and tragic works.
Most significantly, the portrayal of love as a theme on stage is able to establish deep roots of meaning within the lives of the audience, drawing parallels between imaginary characters and the striking reality of human emotion. In the Olivier film version of Shakespeare’s King Lear, the director makes careful decisions about character portrayal, camera angles, and lighting to accentuate particularly significant examples of self-love, materialistic love, and parental love in drawing the conclusion that love, as exhibited by many characters in the opening act of his play, is thoroughly flawed.
One of the most prominent situations supporting the director’s choice to demonstrate the imperfect pursuit of love in King Lear occurs when the ageing King, overwhelmed by his desire for flattery, decides to divide his expansive kingdom among his three daughters with the pursuit of self-love at heart. Lear asks his daughters, “Which of you shall we say doth love us most?” (1.1.46), and plans to give the greater portion of his kingdom to the daughter who showers him lovingly with the most bountiful praise. Loving himself so highly that he blinds himself from seeing the right way to make a decision, Lear exposes the fact that making unwise choices based on flattery and self-absorption is foolish. For example, the director of the film demonstrates the idea of Lear’s love for himself by portraying the daughters as Lear, himself, would view them following their differing declarations of love. Using costumes and makeup, the director depicts both Gonerill and Regan as elegant, mature women in colourful gowns, corresponding to their overly flattering claims of love for their father.
However, Cordelia is dressed simply in white, and plainly shows her nervous emotions, corresponding to her honest and straightforward answer to Lear’s question. As a result of Lear’s uncontrollable love for his own reputation, he disowns his favourite daughter, Cordelia, stating harshly, “Better thou/ Hadst not been born than not t’have pleased me better.” (1.1.229-230) Lear’s other daughters, Gonerill and Regan, begin to believe that he is growing insane, and undermine their father by limiting the number of loyal knights that he will be allowed to keep at the castle. Clearly, Lear’s preoccupation with flawed self-love leads him to irreparable damage in his most meaningful relationships.
In addition to Lear’s love of himself, Edmond’s love of material possessions contributes to the theme of defective love in this film of King Lear. Edmond, the illegitimate son of Gloucester, desires so strongly to become his father’s heir to gain material possessions that he resorts to lies and trickery. Edmond visits his father with a false letter, allegedly from his brother, Edgar, describing Edgar’s supposed plan to kill Gloucester in order to gain early access to his father’s assets. According to the letter, Edgar believes that, “this policy and reverence of age makes the/world bitter to the best of our times, keeps our fortunes from us/till our oldness cannot relish them.” (1.2.45-47) Edmond’s acquisitive desire likely originated from his shame as an illegitimate son, and demonstrates the imprudence of devising such cruel schemes as a result of loving material possessions.
As a result of Edmond’s submission to a deep love of money, he sends his brother away out of mock fear for their father’s supposed rage, thus breaking the bonds of trust and love within the family. Edmond’s selfish plan rooted in materialistic love also causes Gloucester to turn against his own legitimate son, calling Edgar an “unnatural, detested, brutish villain.” (1.2.69) The director of the film chooses to portray Edmond’s disastrous pursuit of acquisitive love using a camera angle centred on Edmond throughout the soliloquy in which he details his selfish scheme. This camera shot represents Edmond’s egocentric mind frame, with his sights set only on his own financial satisfaction, and alludes to the fact that Edmond’s attention to love is terribly off-course.
Finally, the exploration of familial love in the film illustrates Gloucester’s flawed ability to understand genuine parental love. It is evident that Gloucester’s love of his two sons, Edmond and Edgar, is both inconsiderate and distrustful. For example, in spite of the expectation that parents keep their children’s sensitive emotions and best interests at heart, Gloucester thoughtlessly discusses Edmond’s accidental conception in Edmond’s very presence. Avoiding the thought of his son’s possible embarrassment, Gloucester’s shameful claim of having, “so/often blushed to acknowledge [Edmond]” (1.1.8-9) proves him to be a bold and insensitive father. As a result of Edmond’s frustration and feeling of inferiority towards his legitimate brother, he devises the deceitful scheme that tears apart the family’s trust. Furthermore, Gloucester’s instant acceptance of his son Edgar as the author of Edmond’s false, vindictive letter further demonstrates his imperfect fatherly love, and proves him to be a gullible and distrustful parent.
For example, Gloucester states spontaneously, as he skims the letter, “I’ll apprehend [Edgar]. /Abominable villain, where is he?” (1.2.70-71), jumping to conclusions and affirming that the letter must be Edgar’s, even before he even has a chance to confirm the situation with his accused son. The director of the film depicts Gloucester’s flawed familial love using a dark and shadowed lighting arrangement as the play begins, representing the dim, imperfect relationships within the family. This lighting arrangement also foreshadows the gloomy fragmentation of the family as a result of Gloucester’s flawed fatherly love and his tactlessness for Edmond’s feelings about his illegitimate conception.
In conclusion, the theme of love as illustrated by Lear, Edmond, and Gloucester in the film portrays the message that human love is often selfish, insensitive, or otherwise flawed. This theme speaks to the very root of human behaviour, as much stress in daily life stems from the frustrations associated with fragile relationships of love. As is evident from the subsequent effects of each character’s defective love in this play, blindly misusing one’s power to love can easily harm other individuals, and may put one’s own happiness at stake. Not only are Shakespeare’s plays valuable as entertainment; they are vessels of moral education. By learning from these characters’ misunderstandings about love, humans have a chance to recognize faults and improve their own relationships. It may take little more than some basic literary lessons in love to raise human tolerance, to learn to appreciate one another, and to begin to make a difference in our world by loving genuinely and selflessly.