We see in the opening scenes of King Lear that Lear is the character that carries the most authority and power, however he also begins to rapidly lose these traits throughout the play. This drastic change in Lear’s life is portrayed by Shakespeare very effectively through change in different characters attitude and language, and symbolic events such as servants defying Lear and taking orders from his daughter instead.
The quote “Come not between the dragon and his wrath” displays his power and authority through forceful language at the beginning of the play.
It’s evident he is aware of his power as he compares himself to a powerful beast. It portrays how he delivers demands without hesitation as he knows his servants and knights will tend to his every need. Lear’s first line of the play is a demand to Gloucester to “Attend the lords of France and Burgundy”, a demand Gloucester immediately. Again this presents Lear’s power and authority.
During the opening scenes of the play Shakespeare emphasizes Lear’s power through the use of language. The use of ‘royal we’ signifies Lear’s power as King. He describes his daughter, Cordelia as “our joy” although he actually means ‘my joy’, this highlighting his royal status.
We see how much power Lear has by the way other characters address him in a formal manner at the beginning of the play. When Lear’s demand is declared to Gloucester at the beginning of the play, his immediate response is “I shall, my Lord” this portrays how other characters obey to his needs without complaint, thus emphasising Lear’s power and authority. The other characters are very complimentary of Lear whilst they address him, this demonstrates his power and their wish to keep The King happy by appraising his ego. Kent’s fear of Lear is shown after Lear makes the error of rejecting Cordelia, Kent addresses Lear as “Royal Lear, whom I have ever honoured as my king, loved as my father”, he combines flattery with respect in the hope of winning Lear over so he can inform Lear of his mistake. Kent is tentative in his approach of putting his point across as Lear could just as easily punish him, which he does.
The emphasis on Lear’s power at the beginning of the play helps the audience recognise Lear’s significant loss of power later in the play. One of the first indication of Lear’s loss of power and authority is when his daughters, Gonerill and Regan begin scheming against him after he offers them land.
We see a fading in Lear’s power over others when, in the very few lines spoken between Gonerill and Oswald in act one scene three Gonerill says “I’ll not endure it”, while speaking about her father’s behavior.
In the fourth scene, Lear begins to question his power and authority as his servants are not tending to his demands, “Where’s my knave? my fool?”. When one of Lear’s loyal knights bring to Lear’s attention that he’s being wronged, Lear says “I have perceived a most faint neglect of late,” thus signifying his awareness that he’s slowly, but surely, losing his authority.
Further into scene four, Lear’s loss of power and authority is demonstrated by the way in which Oswald addresses him. While Lear asks the question “who am I?” Oswald replies with “My lady’s father”, causing the King to become appalled by the lack of respect. Oswald then continues his rudeness by answering back and showing lack of respect towards Lear.
Shakespeare presents Lear’s loss of authority through his daughters’ sudden ability to control him. “e’er since thou mad’st thy daughters thy mothers” the wisdom of the fool depicts how order has become chaos due to Lear’s giving of his kingdom to his daughters resulting in him losing his role of an authoritative figure along the way. The fool also puts the blame on Lear, “thou gav’st them the rod and put’st down thine own breeches”, the fool highlighting that the King has only himself to blame for his loss of power and authority.
The role of ‘the fool’ is used to portray the truth, but because of his role he is not taken seriously. Lear does not see how much truth is in what he says, thus connecting to the theme of blindness “I am a fool, thou art nothing”, here he is referring to the loss in his power to his daughters. Shakespeare uses the change to emphasise the King’s increasing lack of power and authority, “May not an ass know when the cart draws the horse?” This show’s the change in roles, Gonerill now is the dominant figure of the Kingdom.
We witness Gonerill’s authority over Lear when she demands that he sends some of his servants and knights away whether he likes it or not, “By her, that else will take the thing she begs, A little to disquantity your train”. Disgusted by Gonerill’s orders, Lear decides to leave to live with his other daughter Regan, but Gonerill has already written to her sister who is, likewise, determined not to house his knights. This again signifies Lear’s loss of authority and power over his daughters. As he gradually loses his attendants, Lear is more aware that it symbolises the loss of his remaining power. Lear rightly views his loss of attendants as an indication of his ungrateful daughters’ lack of respect for him and his ranking as The King. Also read about role of the fool in King Lear essay
As an audience, during the first act we see the loss of Lear’s power through the disobedience of other characters. In handing over his kingdom to his two daughters, we soon discover that in doing so he also handed over the respect others have for him, his formal authority as King and the role of being a father. What we see by the end of Act 1 is that Lear no longer has the power to command anyone to do anything, even to provide him with shelter or food – his daughters, each of whom is now Queen over half of Britain, carry special authority over him. The loss of power is vast resulting in a complete role reversal compared to the beginning of the play, and although the loss of power and authority is evident to the audience and the characters around Lear, he himself is blind to what’s happening until it’s too late and he’s lost everything.
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