King Lear is one of those masterpieces of human frailty, weakness and redemption; it is a journey, not just into the fictional imaginings of a literature heavyweight but into our own minds as well. Throughout the plot King Lear himself sets in motion a realm changing series of events which culminates in a sad but hard fought journey of redemption from the fires of betrayal and immorality. By reading King Lear you are compelled to concede the limitations of the human person while also gaining an insight into the day to day relationships of our own world, it is enthralling.
The play is set in a world of despotic monarchy in what would seem to be pre-medieval England. King Lear has ruled autocratically over his kingdom for most of his life, but he is old and frail and uncertain of the future. In a selfish but intentionally innocent decision Lear splits his kingdom up into three with the view that his three daughters will rule equally in his stead. His plan gets off to a bad start when Cordelia, his youngest and most favoured daughter refuses to partake in Lear’s ‘love test’. A test designed to reward the daughter most adept at flattery. Cordelia is an exceptional Shakespearean character, she defines human innocence, providing an insight into a humanity absent of the corrupting influences found in society. Her father Lear is the complete opposite, a walking bastion of corruption and despotism, strung up in the failings of an oligarch he constructed. Yet for all his failings there still remains a glimmer of hope, that he may yet overcome his weaknesses and lead a better life.
Goneril and Regan who came into their own during the love test quickly begin to turn away from their now powerless father Lear who is becoming nothing more than a cantankerous burden. It may seem that Lear is becoming the victim of his daughters Goneril and Regan but in fact it is the complete opposite. Lear had made his favouritism of Cordelia known to his court for some time and this would have undoubtedly marginalised Goneril and Regan. The contempt within them grew until they had nothing left but pure deep-seated hatred, not just for Lear but for everything. Their incurable want of power, control and lust would lead them on a path to destruction. Goneril and Regan did not commit immoralities against Lear and everyone else intentionally; they had been bound to this fate for some time, damaged, scarred and broken by the very man they had looked for, for love and patronage. For Goneril and Regan, destruction was instinct.
As Lear descends into madness his retinue begins to expire save two divinely loyal subjects, Kent and the Fool. From the beginning Kent acts as a voice of reason, I may even be so bold as to say the voice of God, or some substitute for God. Everything Kent does throughout the play is for the benefit of his master, Lear “See better, Lear; and let me still remain the true blank of thine eye”. From disguising himself as Caius in order to avoid execution, to striking down Oswald Goneril’s insidious messenger, Kent has Lear’s best interests in mind, whether Lear realises that or not.
Historically the fools and court jesters have been afforded the right to ‘tell it how it is’ to the King, this is generally because fools talk a whole load of bollocks anyway but the fool present in King Lear is radically different. He (or sometimes she) has a tendency to speak simple wisdom “This cold night will turn us all to fools and madmen”. The fool was exactly right, as Lear’s good conscious continues to descend into the darkest recesses of his mind. Lear’s rage begins to boil over, passing blame on the world unfairly. He calls for the human race to be sterilized and encourages unbridled sexual activity, claiming that bastards are superior to legitimate children. Lear perhaps begins to realise around this point in the play that this whole unfortunate series of events was actually his fault, evens so he lies to himself, refusing to confront the truth of things. As we know Lear would not regain his sanity until Cordelia’s return.
The sub-plot involving Gloucester and his sons also mirror that of Lear’s plot. Edgar, an archetypal noble son with damning innocence is implicated in the attempted murder of his brother Edmund, the very man who is responsible for masterminding the incident. In examining why Edmund would want to do this exposes the failings of hierarchical society, but also the basest human desire for power. For his whole life Gloucester had made fun Edmund’s very existence, stating that “I had much fun in his making”. This reduces Edmund to worthlessness in his mind and creates a vacuum that needs to be filled. He tries to fill this with the pursuit of power, taking a similar path to Goneril and Regan. They are so similar in fact that he bonds with both Goneril and Regan, becoming the object of their sexual desires. Edmund doesn’t stop after exiling Edgar; he eventually usurps his father’s position as the Earl of Gloucester, his shortcomings made up for. By doing this he subjects his father to extreme torture at the hands of the brute Cornwall and his wife Regan.
Cordelia returns in Act 4 at the head of a French army, metaphorical for the forces of good, even though they are defeated in battle, Albany who realises the sins of his wife Goneril begins to side with the forces of moral reconciliation. An epic battle between good and evil ensues when all characters are brought together near the end. Edgar strikes down Edmund, who would eventually die but redeem himself with one last act of good, attempting to save the life of Lear and Cordelia. Goneril and Regan poison each other, entrapped by their desires of the flesh. Cordelia is hung before Edmund could intervene in his dying breaths. Cordelia’s death absolutely devastates Lear who enters carrying her dead body and spouting abuses about everyone present “O, you are men of stones!” shortly after he literally dies from a broken heart. Kent has great insight from the beginning of the play, affirming this with his statement to a broken hearted Lear “That from your first of difference and decay, Have follow’d your sad steps, -“ The final piece we see in the play is Edgar’s final statement, and a lesson to all of us “Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say. The oldest hath borne most: we that are young Shall never see so much, nor live so long”.