Concerns in Lear #
The meanings of a play emerge indirectly or implicitly via the vicarious personal involvement or identification and empathy of us the responders.
Meaning can also be derived from recurring Motifs which unify the plot and provide clues to the composer’s underlying concerns in creating meaning through patterns of design.
Shakespeare’s plays are a rich minefield of layers and layers of meaning and we can often find recurring concerns developed in similar or differing ways. Variations upon a theme will reinforce the message.
Motifs help to foster textual integrity. King Lear is full of recurring references, allusions, images and language that provide a pattern of meaning, including Providence (are we the masters of our own identity?) Deception, Betrayal, Loyalty……
Shakespeare embodies the moral relativism of the Post-Modernists. One can never be sure whose side he is on. Shakespeare is full of moral and philosophical ambiguities. As John Bell states:
“he doesn’t commit himself to any one stance….he didn’t have to believe anything. His great objectivity lead to ambivalence because life is ambiguous. No matter how evil his characters are, they are subject to a conscience.
While there is some truth to this, there are recurring motifs that suggest Shakespeare has strident views on husbandry and sound governance. The use and abuse of power and the law abounds in the histories, and emerges in the tragedies, where the transcendental forces of justice dictate the outcome of human disputes. Overall, the sheer weight and diversity of legal terminology in Shakespeare’s works has resulted in multiple lines of scholarly research on the topic. The fallibility of earthly judgment is a recurring phenomenon
Unifying Motifs in Lear: #
Motifs are recurring images, ideas or variations on themes that emphasize or reinforce overriding concerns of the composer. They also help to provide unity to a large scale work.
1. Providence – divine retribution – man’s place in the cosmos. #
At times the play appears particularly dark. Shakespeare appears on an incessant quest for understanding; are we autonomous or mere puppets of circumstance and chance? He refuses to reconcile these incompatible perspectives.
Is the universe:
rational, moral and deterministic or
random, indifferent and radically open?
Lear expresses deep dark despair:
When we are born, we cry that we are come
To this great stage of fools:
unaccommodated man is nor more but such a poor, bare, forked animal
Gloucester believes in portents, the stars:
“These late eclipses in the sun and moon portend no good to us*” I.2.103
But in despair he resorts to cynicism and at worst to nihilism:
We have seen the best of our time:
machinations, hollowness, treachery, and all
ruinous disorders, follow us disquietly to our graves.
Perhaps the most despairing is:
“As flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods,
they kill us for their sport” IV.1.35.
Edmund disagrees: He is determined to invert the natural order:
Edmund the base
Shall top the legitimate. I grow; I prosper:
Now, gods, stand up for bastards!
We are free agents, self-sufficient – responsible for our destiny.
“This is excellent foppery of the world,
that when we are sick in fortune,…..
we make guilty of our disasters the sun,
the moon and stars; as
if we were villains on necessity;
fools by heavenly compulsion….” I.2.118-120
The bureaucracy of evil: #
Where does evil come from? Germany was often considered the best educated and most cultural country in the world and yet produced the most monsters such as, Heydrich, Hitler and his principal henchmen: Goebbels, Göring, Himmler, Eichmann with nicknames to match: The Butcher of Prague. The Hangman. The Blond Beast. The Man with the Iron Heart.
America too prides itself as having the best constitution and educational institutions and yet appears to be floundering.
Institutions become corrupted incipiently, incestuously and insidiously when a group of self-serving members attracts others interested in forming a cabal within the organization dedicated to assuming control. Often the rationale is to promote the interests of the institution about the public interest. They justify their actions as best for their tribe and rationalise exclusionary treatment of others above all other considerations condoning unspeakable crimes.
Others in the organisation may not be in the inner circle but are happy to tacitly accept and support the cabal.
A third group of outsiders apathetically accept situations passively – what can we do?
The fourth group also do nothing as they feel obliged to remain gracious as the best form of neutrality. Evil thrives because good people stand by and do nothing. (Edmund Burke)
The fifth group can be called whistleblowers, advocators, gadflies , provocateurs or trouble-makers. They often suffer the most.
Albany is one of those who ponders the cause of evil, the root of unnatural conduct:
“Now the gods that we adore, whereof comes this?” (Lear’s anger) I.4.287.
Lear also questions the cause of evil: III.6.77
Let us anatomise Regan. See what breeds about her heart.
Is there a cause in nature that makes these hard hearts?”
Edgar makes some of the most profound observations:
“The gods are just and of our pleasant vices
Make instruments to plaque us.”
The dark and vicious place where thee he got"
Cost him his eyes.” V.3.170
And Edmund replies:
“Tis true. The wheel has come full circle*” V.3 174.
Albany, beginning to comprehend what is happening concludes:
“Humanity must perforce prey on itself IV. 2. 46 – 50.
This shows you are above,You justicers,
that these our nether crimes
So speedily can venge! IV. 3. 78 – 80.
It is the stars, The stars above us,
govern our conditions. IV. 3.32.
(the final word) Albany:
“All friends shall taste,
The wages of their virtue, and all foes
The cup of their deservings.. V.3 276
We all like to see the good prevail and the baddies get their comeuppance.
It may be noteworthy that initially Lear claims his authority from the gods and calls upon them to take his side, but through his tortuous journey he appears to have lost his faith in them but found the power of his own humanity by learning to love Cordelia.
2. The Family: #
King Lear explores the nature of the family through a number of means. The word “kind” is short for kindred, and people who violate the bonds of kindred transgress a natural law and are punishe.
For many people, Lear’s family is a dysfunctional one; there is no surviving mother and his avowed favourite is disinherited in a capricious impulsive moment of rage, by a man who must feel omnipotent. It is possible he has married twice and that Cordelia is the offspring of his second wife, sired in his sixties.
Yet Shakespeare uses the metaphor of family throughout the play to illustrate his concerns. If Lear rules his kingdom like he runs his family, little wonder both become dysfunctional. If he were a domineering and bullying father, no wonder his daughters end up like that.
The play begins with all the family congregated in a room and ends with the corpses of all four piled up on stage.
Albany talks about husbandry, in terms of a family being a family tree:
“She that herself will sliver and disbranch
From her material sap, perforce must wither
And come to deadly use. IV. 2.. 34 – 36
Lear rants against filial ingratitude:
“But yet thou art my flesh, my blood, my daughter,**/Or rather a disease that’s in my flesh” *II. 4 213 – 214.
twas this flesh begot/Those pelican daughters?* III. 4. 74
He questions whether:
It be you (the Heavens) that stirs these daughters’ hearts/Against their father” II 267 - 8
Cordelia cannot vow devoted unqualified and boundless love for her father but does declare a duteous love:
“Obey you, love you, and most honour you” I.i. 100.
Much has been written regarding Cordelia’s refusal to play the game; was it naivety? pride? or simply a rebuff to her sisters indicating her disdain of their false flattery as her declamations of love would sound hollow and trite.
Perhaps she was following the biblical saying:
“The heart of fools is in their mouths, but the mouth of the wise is in their heart”
or another common saying:
“Relying on my command of language, I remained silent” or: “it is better to remain silent and let people believe what they want, then to open your mouth and remove all doubt”, or
“ speech is silvern; silence is golden”.
Furthermore she translates her filial love into action and pays the ultimate price in an attempt to rescue her father.
Albany ends the play with the exhortation to
“Speak what you feel; not what you ought to say.”
To maintain order and authority, Lear ironically abdicates:
“that future strife may be prevented now”
and holds a love auction to:
“confer authority to younger strength”
- The authority of language is threatened and subverted by Goneril and Regan’s empty flattery and Cordelia’s refusal to play the game but
“Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.”
“words, empty as the wind, should be left unsaid” Homer – The Iliad
- A favourite Biblical quote “Therefore write the things which you have seen, and the things which are…– Revelation 1:19.
And as with all things Bible, it can be interpreted in different ways. Good journalists, which is mainly political reporting:
Write what you see, what is, and what you think will come from it.
3. Fortuna: #
One cannot trust Fortuna; she is fickle, constant only in her inconstancy. She is referred to derogatively:
Fortune, that arrant whore, Ne’re turns the key to the poor. II :4 52.
Fortune, good night; smile once more, turn thy wheel. II.2. 169.
To be worst,
The lowest and most dejected thing of fortune, Stands still in Esperance, lives not in fear.
The lamentable change is from the best;
The worst returns to laughter. IV. 1. 2 – 6.
Lear: I am the natural fool of fortune
This judgement of the heavens, that makes us tremble,/Touches us not with pity.
I am cast down;
Myself could else outfrown false Fortune’s frown V.3.5-6
As in Providence, this can be read as an affirmative view of the universe or in Nihilistic or existentialist terms based on the desperation of Lear’s conditions after he abdicates his throne.
4. Authority - the origins #
During Medieval times Kings were considered demi-gods and assumed to have almost divine absolute power as representatives of God in the natural order of men. By abdicating his authority, Lear destroys the natural harmony of state, family and personal.
The Play opens with two nobles speculating on King’s preferences to Dukes Albany and Cornwall. They show abject deference to the King’s authority.
The Map Scene is where Lear dispenses his authority in imperious and imperative manners. The map is a symbol of power and authority.
To maintain order and authority, Lear ironically abdicates:
” that future strife may be prevented now”
and holds a love auction to
“confer authority to younger strength”
Many critics believe King Lear to be the supreme example of Shakespeare’s tragic genius, but … are sharply divided about the nature and causes of the tragedy. Johnathon Dollimore (1989) sees it as about society, describing it as ‘above all a play about power, property and inheritance’.
Lear’s many speeches deal with his loss of power and property due to passing on his inheritance to his children prematurely. They dwell on Lear’s brooding over his loss.
Witnessing the powerful forces of the natural world, Lear comes to understand that he, like the rest of humankind, is insignificant in the world. This realization proves much more important than the realization of his loss of political control, as it compels him to reprioritize his values and become humble and caring.
As Lear wanders about a desolate heath in Act III, a terrible storm, strongly but ambiguously symbolic, rages overhead. In part, the storm echoes Lear’s inner turmoil and mounting madness: it is a physical, turbulent natural reflection of Lear’s internal confusion. At the same time, the storm embodies the awesome power of nature, which forces the powerless king to recognize his own mortality and human frailty and to cultivate a sense of humility for the first time. The storm may also symbolize some kind of divine justice, as if nature itself is angry about the events in the play. Finally, the meteorological chaos also symbolizes the political disarray that has engulfed Lear’s Britain.
King Lear, contains of the greatest of lines on the social perils of privilege:
“Take physic, pomp, / Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel.”
Lear runs a brilliant course from despotic king and father to a gentle human being. The depend on good acting, set design, costuming, and camera-work to engage the audience.
When it comes to the nature and causes of tragedy we need to juxtapose Aristotelian tragedy to Epic threatre to understand and relate it to his identity crisis and him gaining self knowledge.
By analysing the major speeches Lear makes we can relate them to Aristotle’s ideas on what makes tragedy, - self-knowlege.
Yet many scenes, depending on direction, can detach or even alienate us from Lear. The scene where his one hundred riotous retainers trash the chamber, reveals his vanity - his unrealistic expectatations, evoking sympathy for his daughters. Perhaps he is more in line with an Epic hero like Gilgamesh, Agamemnon or Odysseus than Oedipus or Hamlet.
The authority of language is threatened and subverted by Goneril and Regan’s empty flattery and Cordelia’s refusal to play the game but
“Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.”
Authority is challenged: #
Kent defies Lear’s banishment as he regards loyalty as a higher order.
Oswald obeys any order; servile, sycophant, a lackey
Gloucester is prepared to defy the new authority “If I die for it” to revert his allegiance to
“the king my old master*” III. 3 18
Paternal authority is threatened by Goneril and Regan and by Edmond.
Nature is appealed to by Lear to reverse its course and
“Strike flat the thick rotundity o’th’world, crack nature’s moulds, all germens spill at once.”
Hear Nature hear Dear Goddess hear!
Suspend thy purpose, if thou didst intend
To make this creature fruitful.
Into her womb convey sterility;
Dry up in her the organs of increase;
If she must teem
Create her child of spleen, that it may live
and be thwart disnatured torment to her…..” I .iv.230 – 238.
Authority of Good over Evil?
Perhaps the most controversial of the issues raised by the play is whether the play supports a positive, purposeful morally ordered universe or a capricious, indifferent and non deterministic one.
Those who argue for the cause of good, talk of redemption and regeneration. They use the analogy of the refining of metals in fire and that it is only through suffering that Lear becomes a better man; signalled by the unwonted care he bestows on the poor naked wretches and his transformed views on justice.
Those who see the play negatively as disintegration or dissolution cite his eventual treatment of Cordelia not as a mature woman, rather as a child, a granddaughter in a nursery rhyme. The “Sing like birds i’th’ cage” passage is used by both sides to mount their case, the redemptives to indicate Lear’s lack of vindictiveness while the other side sees it as Lear moving from one stage of delusion to another, his inability to face reality and comprehend people as they are and opting out into a fantasy rather than engaging in constructive action. To them the ending is a disturbing, shocking and depressing one.
5. Anarchy and Order: #
There are serious breaches – anarchy reigns.
Parent and Child - Lear and his daughters, Gloucester and Edgar and Edmund
Husband and wife – disputes especially between Goneril and Albany
Master and Servant - Kent and Lear and Oswald to Goneril and Regan
Health and sickness - Madness a usurpation of reason
Custom and breach - Kings should not abdicate /Children should honour parents.
Natural and perverse - “Blow Wind ….
Power and Misuse - Regan and Goneril and their attempts to abuse their power.
Loyalty and sycophancy - Respectable loyal Kent as opposed to the fawning Oswald
Chaos and Order - Disarray of Goneril, Regan and Edmund as to original Lear
6. Reason and Will #
Passion and reason -
Cordelia : passion most rebel-like sought to be king o’er her
Lear’s impetuous and rash decision making in the first scene lacks reason.
7. Flattery #
Leaders like Caesar, Augustus, Napoleon, Hitler, Trump….. are propped up by unquestioning lackeys. Good leaders have enough confidence in themselves to inspire confidence in their advisors and encourage divergent views.
Is Shakespeare cautioning King James I against the fawning fops in his court?
King Richard II was aware that some of his subjects attempt to curry favor through flattery. Lear craves it, hence the love auction.
Tacitus also warned about the “pretences of freedom”.
“It was a tainted, meanly obsequious age. The greatest figures had to protect their positions by subserviency; and, in addition to them, all ex-consuls, most ex-praetors, even many junior senators competed with each other’s offensively sycophantic proposals.
Kent proves to be a brave trustworthy and loyal advisor when despite being banished by Lear, he risks his life by disquising himself as a servant to protect the King and eventually reuinite him with Cordelia.