Remarks on King Lear
King Lear is usually considered Shakespeare’s second greatest tragedy—just behind Hamlet. It is an extraordinarily moving play and it speaks to a period in one’s life that we look to with confused thoughts. For a moment set aside your current concerns on aging which are so caught up in social security reform, retirement planning, medicare, 19th Century drawing of Lear, Fool, Edgar, and Kent and the high cost of nursing home care.
Without being morbid we need to remind ourselves that the net effect of old age is death, but at the same time that grim destination is tempered by other considerations such as retirement, veneration, less responsibility, and much less toil. So old age is looked upon as a time to reap the rewards of a lifetime of work and service. Death is, of course, nearer, but with luck it will be relatively quick and not accompanied by unbearable pain.
In Shakespeare’s time a relatively painless death was seen as the reward of a virtuous life. People who suffered long in agonizing death throes were believed great sinners who could now see the jaws of hell opening to receive them. Their cries of pain and anguish were the results of their efforts to hold back and delay death so long as possible. Although Shakespeare is not regarded as a particularly Christian writer, that view of death informs his basic ideas. One lesson we may note from this is that although Lear suffers greatly during the course of the play, his actual death is quick and peaceful. Perhaps his earlier madness led him to a wisdom and understanding that brought him peace in death.
What is the attraction of King Lear? Why is it rated so high on the Shakespeare charts? In part it is a story of the triumph of good over evil. In part it is the dramatic untangling of a strong but deeply flawed personality. Lear’s wife preceded him in death, and we have no reference to her, but surely a female presence would have mitigated somewhat the careless boisterousness of the old willful monarch who seems determined to dominate and overwhelm in his retirement as he had when he commanded his subjects. From the beginning Lear is a man fundamentally well intentioned but without balance. Thoughtfully preparing for his death is wise, but he seems in some regards to want to give up his responsibility but not his power. “Only we still retain the name and all additions to a king.” (I.1. 138) To help him in this transition he wants to keep one hundred knights who will accompany him while hunting and generally relieve any loneliness. [It may, however, be noted that Lear makes the demand for knights and titles after he has been repulsed by Cordelia. Before, he spoke of crawling to death unburdened.]
The give away scheme is spoiled by Cordelia, his youngest and favorite daughter. She does not approve of her father’s request for an expression of her love and devotion to him. To be sure his two older daughters Regan and Goneril are excessively effusive in their proclamations of love and Cordelia, who sees through their superficiality, does not wish to be a part of the little drama staged in the King’s behalf. Cordelia loves her father too much to humor him. She respects him for what he was and perhaps does not fully realize what he is becoming.
Aging often changes personalities. Frequently what were once annoying traits of an otherwise attractive personality, become unbearable, dominating qualities. A person who in her forties and fifties was fairly critical becomes in her sixties and seventies a cantankerous, grumpy, sour old woman who never has a kind word for anyone. Lear may well have progressed further along this road than Cordelia realized. He may always have been a man that expected and responded to flattery. Now in old age he demands it regardless of sincerity. Since Cordelia is expelled, the one hundred knights may be expected to take her place.
As the play continues Regan’s and Goneril’s duplicity is further revealed. Their love for their father, which they were eager to proclaim earlier, diminishes under the day to day strain of putting up with him, his men, and their unruly activities. Note that the events precipitating Lear’s initial altercation with Goneril are initiated by him. As we examine these events we might today sympathize with Goneril who has the difficult task of integrating the needs of an elderly and willful parent into her home. Again, the Elizabethan audience would surely view this differently. First, Goneril is a woman who should by definition be catering to the needs of men. Secondly, as a daughter she should always be obedient and subservient to her father. And thirdly, as the recipient of an unbelievably generous gift, she should be tolerant and forever thankful and beholden to the giver. Instead, Goneril stands her ground and is neither beholden nor obedient, so Lear leaves in a huff to move in with his other daughter, Regan.
The audience already knows this will probably not work since it has overheard a conversation between Regan and Goneril in which they agree not to let Lear rule their houses. True to their word they stand firm against Lear’s demands. The scene is pathetic as the two daughters negotiate with Lear over the number of knights he may retain and it is in stark contrast to the earlier scene when they were competing over the amount of love they held for their father. We see Lear’s power vanishing before the oncoming storm, and as his power drains away his madness comes on.
In his madness Lear shows all the signs and symptoms of what we would today refer to as senile dementia. He has no regard for personal comfort or protection from the elements; he does not recognize long time acquaintances; and he cries out against nature and fate, things over which he has no control. Today a physician would prescribe one or more powerful drugs that would calm this temperament and make Lear more tractable. The Elizabethan audience sees the situation as more complex. These viewers ask, “Is Lear’s madness the result of his daughters’ treatment of him, or is their treatment of him the result of his oncoming insanity?” The answer is probably a bit of both. Neither Lear nor his daughters are acting with any generosity and understanding. Everyone wants everything their way.
The story of Lear is great, it is sweeping, it is archetypal. It is interesting and illuminating to consider and discuss the issues it raises. But the conclusion of the play is messy, uneven, and often difficult to follow. Cordelia hears her father is being mistreated by her sisters and comes to the rescue. [One may ask why she can’t simply suggest that he come visit her in France for awhile to give her sisters a break.] Cordelia’s attempted rescue becomes an invasion of England by France, and Goneril and Regan raise armies to resist. Shakespeare cannot really fault this response nor does he want to dramatize on stage a French victory over England. So we have what I think is generally considered a clumsy conclusion. Cordelia’s forces move forward to the point they locate Lear and bring him to her, but then they are pushed back and Lear and Cordelia are captured by Edmund who is commanding the English troops. They are taken off to prison, but Edmund sends a captain after them with a message to execute the prisoners.
Now the plot becomes increasingly complicated owing to the clear and sickening moral corruption of Goneril and Regan who both lust after the bastard, Edmund. Edgar, Edmund’s half brother, gives Albany, Goneril’s husband, a letter detailing his wife’s actual or planned infidelity with Edmund as well as his other deceptions. After the victory over France, Edgar appears in full armor to defend the charges made in the letter. He mortally wounds Edmund, who as he is dying repents his actions and reveals his order to kill Lear and Cordelia. Edgar runs to the rescue but he is not in time to save Cordelia. Lear now comes on stage with her in his arms. Realizing all that he has lost, he dies peacefully of a broken heart.
It is indeed tragic to compare the early scene of the play with three healthy, vibrant, sisters and a well intentioned father laying the plans for a prosperous and peaceful future. Now the plans are shattered, all three sisters are dead; and the king, seeing how cruel life has treated him and how his own actions have contributed to this miserable conclusion, dies. Shakespeare leaves us exhausted, saddened, questioning why this has happened and what does it mean. It is surely more than a comment on senility or sibling rivalry, or even duplicity and greed. It is all this and more. It reminds us that life is very hard and uncertain, that one can never fully plan for all eventualities, and that there is no substitute for moral rectitude, wisdom, understanding, and patience.
King Lear is widely regarded as Shakespeare's crowning artistic achievement. The scenes in which a mad Lear rages naked on a stormy heath against his deceitful daughters and nature itself are considered by many scholars to be the finest example of tragic lyricism in the English language. Shakespeare took his main plot line of an aged monarch abused by his children from a folk tale that appeared first in written form in the 12th century and was based on spoken stories that originated much further into the Middle Ages. In several written version of "Lear," the king does not go mad, his "good" daughter does not die, and the tale has a happy ending.
This is not the case with Shakespeare's Lear, a tragedy of such consuming force that audiences and readers are left to wonder whether there is any meaning to the physical and moral carnage with which King Lear concludes. Like the noble Kent, seeing a mad, pathetic Lear with the murdered Cordelia in his arms, the profound brutality of the tale compels us to wonder "Is this the promis'd end?" (V, iii. l.264). That very question stands at the divide between traditional critics of King Lear who find a heroic pattern in the story, and modern readers who see no redeeming or purgative dimension to the play at all, the message being the bare futility of the human condition with Lear as Everyman.