King Lear - Character guides by luckboy

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									King Lear - Character guides
Lear Good literature gives us characters which change and develop. Good study of good literature will be sensitive to these changes, understanding them in order to understand the characters themselves. What follows are ideas, questions and references designed to help you come to your own understanding of the principal characters in King Lear. The following discussion of I.i opens up a number of aspects relating to Lear’s character which are picked up in the points and questions which follow: The opening conversation suggests a male dominated (patriarchal) society, and raises issues of favouritism and legitimacy. All of these are central to the initial presentation of Lear himself and show the first of many parallels between the Gloucester subplot and the main plot involving Lear. Lear’s majesty is established with the use of “we” and “our”. His reasons to split the kingdom now, “that future strife may be prevented” and so that he “may unburdened crawl toward death” seem selfless and laudable. However, the love test raises doubts. Lear has already “divided in three our kingdom” and so the idea of the test, that each daughter should receive an amount commensurate with the verbal expression of their love, is flawed. It could, though, just be a fond game which the father is playing with his daughters. However, Lear has chosen to conduct it in a public forum. This allows the conflict to develop between the King, who must be seen to be obeyed, and the father, who wants to be loved. If the nature of the test is flawed does this also mean that Lear’s thinking regarding the division of the kingdom might also be in error? This thought is strengthened when one hears the blatant favouritism with which Lear addresses Cordelia, “our joy”, having already decided upon giving her “A third more opulent than [her] sisters”. Has Lear’s best decision been to forsake the crown before old age leads him to more errors of judgement? A contemporary (Jacobean) audience would see problems in Lear’s decision. As God’s representative on earth, the kingdom was not his to give away. Primogeniture would determine that the first born would inherit the whole kingdom. James I had enshrined this in his writings, principally ‘The Divine Right of Kings’ and had expressly written against the dividing up of a kingdom between children. When Cordelia does not play the game and Lear rages for the first time, his apostrophizing of (exclaiming towards) the “sun”, “Hecate” and “the night” establishes the pagan setting of the play. Therefore, Lear would have no notions of any C17th divine

right and a Jacobean audience could judge without feeling that they were judging a representation of their own king. Lear’s reaction to Cordelia is intemperate, something later acknowledged by Goneril who refers to his “poor judgement”. He is equally dismissive of the loyal Kent. Both Kent and Cordelia’s comments have been characterized by honesty. Lear’s anger shows “grossly” against this. So why has he reacted thus? Old age, madness and pride are all possibilities. What is certain is that he has created a situation in which his public and private roles have clashed. His assumptions as to what would happen have left him cornered when things go wrong. Like a cornered, wounded animal, he lashes out. Kent withstands Lear’s fury urging him, crucially, to see better. Lear is more concerned, though, “never” to “break our vows” and so Kent and Cordelia are banished and Lear’s own journey begins. France accepts Cordelia, “That art most rich being poor”, and thus establishes a link between feelings and a lack of material wealth which runs throughout the play. The words, echoing some in II Corinthians also link Cordelia with a Christian presentation. Lear’s journey concludes when he meets Cordelia again and it is possible to see her death as a necessary sacrifice to redeem Lear for his initial sins of pride. Authority In V.iii Lear happily goes to prison with Cordelia where they will “…wear out/…packs and sects of great ones…” In the opening scenes, however in his pride, he compares himself with a “dragon” and his imagery when Kent opposes him is violent and commanding: “The bow is bent and drawn; make from the shaft”. What has caused this change? What other examples can you find where Lear’s language conveys his authority? Lear dispenses land for love, thereby mixing his authority as a king with his affections as a father. He expects absolute loyalty and devotion from his children. It is their filial duty. As he seeks to ‘offload’ her to Burgundy or France he refers to “her price” having “fallen”; she is a “wretch whom nature is ashamed/Almost t’acknowledge hers”(I.i.2134). Lear’s use of the language of trade again suggests an unfeeling attitude towards his relationships. In his world it is natural to love a father no matter what. Therefore, Cordelia’s stance makes her ‘unnatural’, a bastard effectively like Edmund, and therefore unfit to inherit anything in this society which is dependent on power, wealth and their inheritance. What does this tell us about Lear’s use of his authority?

Where do your sympathies lie in the opening scenes? What evidence is there to suggest that the society over which Lear rules is both harsh and patriarchal? Lear has been taken in by his elder daughters’ flattery in the love test. In I.iv when we next meet Goneril and Regan, Goneril’s attitude is markedly different. Lear observes “you are too much of late i’the frown.” The relationship has changed; Lear’s sees himself as reflected in the eyes of others and so Goneril’s lack of respect continues the erosion of Lear’s personality as he has conceived it, a process which has probably started with the infirmities of old age and which will have been hastened by Cordelia’s unexpected opposition. In this scene, as yet half in jest he asks, “Who is it that can tell me who I am?” The Fool replies, “Lear’s shadow” as he attempts to make Lear see the reality of his situation. The fool calls Lear a fool because, “All thy other titles thou hast given away” and refers to Lear having “made thy daughters thy mothers”. All these references imply the reversal in Lear’s status since he divided up his kingdom. This last one highlights the absence of a mother figure and therefore, possibly, a source of the imbalance in Lear’s relationship with women and his daughters in particular. Why has Goneril’s attitude towards Lear changed? Lear has yielded his authority but still expects to be treated like a king. Goneril’s attempts to “disquantity” Lear’s “train” rouse his anger such that she is now the “degenerate bastard” and “Detested kite”. Her lack of loyalty, as Lear sees it, make her unnatural and the animal imagery builds the association between Goneril’s attitude and something which is brutish and unfeeling. Lear appeals to “Nature…dear goddess” a force which he regards as benign and fruitful, but in terms which show his latent misogyny as he calls for Goneril to be made sterile or visited with serpent-like children. The anger in his words and thoughts (“Blasts and fogs upon thee!”) anticipates the storm scene which reflects the storm inside his mind and the disintegration of his personality. Significantly, he is “ashamed/That thou hast power to shake my manhood thus”. Displays of emotion are a weakness to him. He later refers to tears as “women’s weapons”. Lear’s concept of manhood is to do with strength, pride and loyalty; he has no room for emotion or humility. In how many different ways does the Fool tell Lear of his folly? When Kent is ‘stocked’ by Cornwall and Regan, Lear’s response is “They durst not do’t…’tis worse than murder/ To do upon respect such violent outrage.” The physical discomfort he then feels is referred to as “this mother” showing the association in his mind between his pain, both mental and physical, and women.

How does this incident illustrate Lear’s diminishing authority? Lear’s journey takes him out onto the heath where he encounters poor Tom and his thoughts turn outwards from himself to the “houseless poverty” of which he takes Tom to be a representative. Authority is then turned on its head in III.vi where Poor Tom, the fool and Kent become the “robed men [man} of justice” at the mock trial of Regan and Goneril. When Lear meets up with Gloucester in IV.vi, the crown of flowers which he wears is a deliberate and ironic parody of the crown which he once wore and all the authority it represented. Lear, speaking in a style which has the twisted, biting logic of the fool, refers to “the great image of authority; a dog’s obeyed in office” as he thinks of those who now wield authority. “Robes and furred gowns hide all” marks Lear’s full understanding of the superficial nature of power and authority. When Lear responds to Gloucester’s “Is’t not the King?” with “Ay, every inch a king” what do you suppose Lear means by this? Is he being ironic? What does it suggest is Lear’s attitude about the source of authority? Love It has been suggested that Lear only regains his humanity once he has renounced his authority. This does not happen straightaway, however. Yes, he gives up his lands and title, but his pride dictates that he still be treated like a king. In his world, love is formal and measured in terms of duty and loyalty, hence his impassioned response to Cordelia’s “nothing”. Cordelia points out though, much like Desdemona, that the love for a parent must give way to that for a spouse. Love is something which can grow, change and develop and is measured in deeds, not fine words or wealth. In I.iv, rejected by Goneril, Lear reflects for the first time on his actions and regains some sense of perspective. Cordelia’s “fault” is now “small” but he sees how it has “wrenched my [his] frame of nature/ From the fixed place, drew from my [his] heart all love/ And added to the gall”. Though this marks the beginnings of a regrowth in his love for Cordelia, his feelings towards his other daughters reveal a deeply misogynistic tendency. His anger is expressed in terms which focus on their sexuality. Here he wishes “sterility” upon Goneril; in II.ii, he suggests that if Regan were not “glad to see” him it would be unnatural and must mean that her mother was an “adultress”. In other words, Regan would be no child of his. Again, Lear’s anger takes his thoughts towards women’s sexual appetites and reproduction. The absence of a mother figure is potentially significant. Certainly, there is confusion between Lear’s feelings about sexual activity and his feelings for women.

Goneril and Regan whittle away Lear’s retinue to the point where Regan asks “What need one?” Lear’s response, “O, reason not the need!” shows Lear’s transition to a point where he recognizes that love cannot be measured and traded with, as his love test had sought to do, and as his daughters now seek to do also. So Lear is growing emotionally, but in this same speech he still wishes that “women’s weapons, water-drops” will not “Stain my man’s cheeks”. As yet he cannot accept fully his more feminine, emotional side. It is not until IV.vii and the reunion with Cordelia that he can accept “mine own tears”. When Cordelia reappears she is portrayed with Christian imagery emphasizing her patience and sorrow. Again, in this speech in II.ii Lear pleads for patience, a feminine quality which he does not yet have. It needs the scenes on the heath and Lear’s recognition of “poor, unaccommodated man” for Lear to see outside of himself before the reunion with Cordelia effects the final redemption in his personality. His exhortation to the “men of stones” to “Howl, howl, howl, howl” using their “tongues and eyes” shows Lear fully able, finally, to express his emotions and urging other men to do likewise. Seeing Lear’s progress from pride to humility and from anger to love is denoted by his ability to see things clearly. Initially, blinded by pride he cannot see through the charade of Goneril and Regan’s words. Instead, Kent and Cordelia’s honesty he takes for insurrection. The visual symbolism of the play makes his ‘blindness’ apparent when he tells Albany and Cornwall to “This coronet part between you” (I.i.140). The physical impossibility of such an action does not alert him to the dangers of his actions. Pride, clothes, power and words cloud his judgement. The interplay with the fool highlights most clearly the Lear’s blindness, though it is Kent who first warns him to “see better” (I.i.159). The fool uses his privileged position as friend and advisor to try to correct Lear’s vision. With blunt yet barbed wit (“Truth’s a dog that must to kennel”) and his caustic songs (The hedge-sparrow fed the cuckoo so long/That it’s had it head bit off by it young) the fool points out Lear’s errors. And it works. In I.v, Lear’s statement “I did her wrong” we sense him looking back to his treatment of Cordelia and seeing his mistake. A few lines further on he is able to answer the fool’s witticism as to “why the seven stars are no more than seven” correctly, “Because they are not eight”, indicating how he is coming to understand the fool’s irreverent but accurate view of events. Like an upside down image gradually righting itself, Lear’s vision clears as he sees things as the fool does, making the fool no longer necessary, such that he departs in Act 3. Lear’s eyes are opened further by his encounter with Poor Tom. Having vented his anger in the storm, he accepts the offer of shelter, significantly, ushering the fool in before him, and reflects on “houseless poverty”. His thoughts are not for himself, now “houseless”,

but for the “naked wretches” such as Poor Tom who is sheltering in the same hovel to which they have come. Lear’s assumption that Poor Tom must have come to his present state through his daughters’ ill-treatment shows what drives Lear’s madness. It is, though, the piercing vision with which Lear sees humanity for what it really is that is most striking. Lear must have in mind his comments about Regan’s “gorgeous” clothes in II.iv.458-9 as he surveys Poor Tom’s attire. Lear’s instinctive desire to take off his own clothes shows how he values the simple sincerity of “unaccommodated man” over the hypocrisy and greed of Regan or Oswald, the “wagtail” who, in Kent’s words is “tailor made”. What other references to clothes can you find in the imagery of the play? The theme of seeing gets its most powerful expression in the comparison with Gloucester. Gloucester ‘sees’ more clearly blind than when he had his eyes. He has suffered physically for his lack of ‘sight’ where Lear has suffered mentally. Gloucester’s “I see it feelingly” (IV.vi.145) is a poignant and accurate expression of the play’s central concern with emotional development. Lear responds much in the manner of the fool with a sharp vision of social injustice, “Plate sin with gold,/ And the strong lance of justice hurtles breaks”. His reunion with Cordelia in which he recognizes her worth completes the circle. By now, however, his ‘sight’ has developed to the point where he no longer wants to be part of the world of “gilded butterflies”. Instead, he imagines then as “God’s spies”, detached and observing all too clearly the foibles of this world. This dream vision is of course shattered by Cordelia’s unnecessary death leaving the possibility that Lear’s clearest vision of all is of the random injustice of this world in which “ a dog, a horse, a rat have life/ And thou [Cordelia] no breath at all”. What are your feelings about the ending of the play? Belief The play finishes with a nihilistic vision, yet the closing scenes are shot through with Christian imagery. There is an intriguing grammatical puzzle over the phrase “God’s spies”. Punctuated as this, it implies a single, presumably Christian God. The pagan Lear of the opening scenes who swears by “Apollo” and “Hecate” appears to have been transformed by association with the Christ-like Cordelia. It is possible though to have “Gods’ spies” implying more than one and a pagan world view. Between pagan start and Christian end, Lear suffers in the storm creating unmistakable associations with the old testament figure of Job. His determination to be “the pattern of all patience” (III.ii.36) links this old testament suffering to the redemption offered by the patient, sacrificial figure of Cordelia.

As Lear moves away from appeals to remote pagan gods and the thundering old testament divine presence of the storm, so he becomes more human and sensitive, less powerful and remote. His concerns become the travails of his fellow man in this world. Through the mediation of Cordelia he takes on a caring, Christian outlook, only for this to be shattered in the play’s final movement. In Jacobean England, with strict church censorship of all writings, Shakespeare could not afford to write a contemporary play which challenged conventional beliefs. Hence the pre-christian setting. Nevertheless, the play is shot through with Christian imagery and its language and cultural references are entirely contemporary. ‘King Lear’ certainly does challenge belief in a divine presence, particularly through the random death of Cordelia. Lear’s own beliefs evolve from ones based on fear of some distant, authoritarian names to a loving humanism. If one accepts that Cordelia had to be sacrificed as Christ was, then perhaps there is room for a more positively Christian interpretation. What do you think? Madness To understand Lear’s madness it is important to understand contemporary ideas regarding madness. Elizabethan/ Jacobean ideas on health still depended largely on a medieval model of the four humours: melancholy, choler, blood and phlegm. This model was to be found in a 1535 translation of a work by a C13th monk Batholomaeus Anglicus, ‘De Propriatibus Rerum’. Batholomaeus distinguished between melancholy and madness; Lear’s madness could be seen as deriving from an excess of choler, the humour associated with anger and was termed “frenesie”. This model was developed by a contemporary of Shakespeare called Bright who distinguished between natural and unnatural melancholy. This latter was derived from a sense of guilt and fear of judgement. This form of melancholy could lead to madness as the guilty person was racked by guilt. The madness thus became a punishment, but was also associated with divine inspiration; the guilty party would both be punished by his/her madness and, through it, see the error of his/ her ways. Like the truth which the fool refers to Lear must be “whipped out”. It is easy to see how this could apply to Lear. He needs Cordelia’s forgiveness and only achieves calmness when he gains this. Interestingly, by the C18th, madness had much more of a stigma attached to it and this could well explain why Tate’s romanticized version of the play was so much more popular then. Without the sense of divine inspiration in the madness more was needed than simply Cordelia’s forgiveness followed by her death. Lear anticipates his possible madness in I.v, “O let me not be mad, not mad, sweet heaven! I would not be mad.” His treatment by his elder daughters angers him to the extent that he cannot express himself clearly (II.ii.469-70) This anger then translates into the storm which rages both outside and in his head. The constant references to his “pelican daughters” make it clear that it is not simply guilt over Cordelia which racks him. He takes on the ideas and speech patterns of Poor Tom confirming his madness,

suffering in mind and body. His doffing of his clothes suggests that he is happy to increase this level of suffering. The Fool is associated with madness being also conventionally thought of as a source of wisdom. Lear’s madness is confirmed when he takes on the vision of the fool, making the fool superfluous hence his disappearance. Only when the reunion with Cordelia is effected does Lear’s language resume a more gentle, less frenzied, bitter tone, “So we’ll live/ And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh/ At gilded butterflies”. Lear is clearly the principal character. Of the others, only Edgar really changes. Gloucester vacillates between hope and despair; Edmund makes a belated show of humanity and Albany emerges as something of a moral force. Edgar Role playing He has a number of roles: dupe, guide, avenger, commentator and chorus. This can lead to him being considered as simply functional. However, he can be seen as both a developing and coherent character, developing, in fact through the roles he plays. Transformation Dupe to king-elect seems an unlikely transformation, but taken step by step it is credible: 1. Like Othello, he is credulous and it was a common place amongst Elizabethans that ‘Your noblest natures are most credulous’ (I.ii.134). Edmund refers to him as “the catastrophe of the old comedy” giving him a role in the plot which Edmund seeks to stage manage. 2. His necessary disguise, as Poor Tom forces him to experience what it is like to be the lowest of the low, paralleling Lear’s experience to an extent. 3. His suffering seems bearable, though, when compared with Lear’s, “How light and portable my pain seems now,/ When that which makes me bend makes the king bow”. 4. Thinking he has reached the bottom, he remains optimistic, saying “Yet better thus, and known to be contemned/ Than still contemned and flattered.” (IV.i.1-2). The reference to a corrupt court shows his growing understanding. However, he is then confronted with his father’s blindness. 5. This leads to the role of guide and the determination to prevent his father’s suicide. Edgar tells the audience at IV.vi.33-4 “Why I do trifle thus with his despair/ Is done to cure it”. 6. He then becomes the poor countryman who is “pregnant to good pity” something which reflects clearly his own situation. 7. The interception and killing of Oswald enables him to pass on the letter to Albany and ultimately to challenge his brother, thereby emerging as the champion of good.

Criticisms • When Gloucester initially wishes he could see Edgar again after his blinding, there is a reason for Edgar not revealing himself because of the presence of the Old Man. However, when the Old Man exits, beyond plot requirements, it is difficult to see the need for further concealment. Edgar suggests at (IV.vi.33) that his continued concealment is done to cure his father of his despair. This he succeeds in, in the short term, but it is not long before Gloucester is again wishing for death (IV.vi.225). The role of leading someone to suicide is one usually associated with the devil, an idea played upon by Edgar in his role as the man who finds Gloucester at the bottom of the cliff. Role playing is a key to Edgar’s character. Having played Poor Tom and being about to be the champion of good by defeating Edmund, is he here playing God with his father’s life? And is there a suggestion of cruelty about it? Whilst playing Poor Tom he says his role is “how to prevent the fiend and to kill vermin” (III.iv.155) and he certainly kills Oswald and Edmund. Does his cruelty (killing) stop there? The grotesque of Gloucester’s suicide anticipates the grotesque flights of fancy of Lear’s madness, thus making an audience readier to accept Lear’s madness by comparison. Further explanations for Edgar’s not revealing of himself could come from a sense of shame at seeing his father maimed and dependent on him. Anticipating criticisms of Edgar as smug and moralizing – “Men must endure/ Their going hence even as their coming hither. Ripeness is all.” (V.ii.9-10) - a contemporary audience would not have found his comments to be either of these things. Yet to a modern audience Edgar can seem detached and all too ready with a moral or platitude with which to sum up events. His moralising as to his father’s blindness – “The gods are just and of our pleasant vices/ Make instruments to plague us:” - must be counterbalanced by the knowledge that he has treated his father with great loving kindness and the possibility that here he is being kind to his brother. Gloucester has shown a superstitious attitude towards the Gods throughout. As such his attitude has varied with mood and circumstances. Against this, Edgar’s firm, moralising tones can seem more balanced and sensible. His earlier description of Gloucester having been saved by a miracle plays deliberately to this superstitious nature.

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In his final speech, Edgar says we “must…/ Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say”. Having been “pregnant to good pity” he has learned the lessons which both Lear and Gloucester have learnt through their great suffering and which Gloucester expresses as to “see it feelingly”. There is promise therefore that his rule will produce a more tolerant, feeling society. However, Lear’s initial rages and Goneril and Regan’s lust for Edmund were also what they felt. So the play does not finish with a simple message to follow your feelings; the political world is more complex than that and doubts must remain as to Edgar’s ability to prove a successful ruler.

Edmund That Edmund is given a number of soliloquies in the first act suggests Shakespeare’s intention is to allow the audience to sympathise with him. Certainly, he demonstrates energy, humour and self-command whilst his challenge to the established order is made clear in his irreverent appeal “Now gods, stand up for bastards!” Other factors add to this sympathetic presentation: • His bastardy is not his fault • His father publicly humiliates him in relation to this – “the whoreson must be acknowledged” • He is going to be sent away again • The old system is seen to be crustily patriarchal Against this background, Edmund’s pursuit of property, wealth and status shows him playing the old order at their own game. Their justification of the obsession with wealth (as illustrated by the love test and Lear’s division of the kingdom) is based on ideals of justice and nobility. However, what we see of this society suggests such ideals are merely “the excellent foppery of the world” (I.ii.118) as Edmund ironically calls it. Therefore, Edmund’s challenge to them seems fresh and invigorating. There are various ways of interpreting Edmund’s role in the play: i. ii. iii. iv. As the only one of Shakespeare’s major tragedies to have a subplot, it is tempting to see Edmund as a direct contrast with Cordelia; he is the bad son, she is the good daughter. He, along with Goneril and Regan, can be seen as capitalist self-seekers following a Machiavellian approach. Thus they are in opposition to what needs to be seen as the benevolent, ‘golden age’ of Lear and Cordelia. Linked to this would be a Marxist interpretation which sees the old order collapsing because of inherent contradictions within its structure. Edmund is the representative of the dark, destructive side of Nature, what Tennyson referred to as “Nature red in tooth and claw”. As an adherent, Edmund pursues the law of the jungle, the survival of the fittest. His is the “lusty stealth of nature” (1ii 11). This contrasts with the beneficent Nature to which Lear appeals and with which Edgar is associated, thus forming a contrast between the brothers. Edmund, again along with Goneril and Regan, is a representative of a new, more refined court, contrasting with the old, violent order typified by Kent’s unprovoked attack on Oswald.

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Edmund’s belated “Some good I mean to do,/ Despite of mine own nature.” comes after his recognition that “Yet Edmund was beloved”. It could be suggested, therefore, that Edmund’s actions have been determined by the lack of love and attention received during his formative years. This gives some credence to a change of heart which otherwise seems to be merely a plot device. It is interesting to consider the difference between this final gesture from Edmund and Iago who “never will speak word” by way of explanation.

Gloucester Gloucester sets the tone of Lear’s patriarchal society with his talk of Edmund’s conception when “there was good sport at his making”. His complacency is highlighted when he seeks to blame “These late eclipses in the sun and moon” for Edgar’s apparently treacherous behaviour. Edmund effectively satirises Gloucester’s ‘beliefs’ suggesting it is “as if we were villains on necessity, fools by heavenly compulsion”. Gloucester blames external forces for what has happened, accepting no responsibility himself. His dependence on these external forces is shown further as he seeks suicide as a way out of his situation. He renounces this life in the face of the “great opposeless wills” of these “mighty gods” (IV.vi). Having been reprieved he then says “Henceforth I’ll bear/ Affliction till it do cry out itself/ ‘Enough, enough’ and die” later referring to “You ever gentle gods” (IV.vi.212). However, it is not long before he is despairing again “A man may rot even here.” (V.ii.8) Thus Gloucester appears weak and dependent throughout. He does help Lear eventually, but not before he has readily accepted the authority of Regan and Cornwall in his own home. His initial acceptance of Edmund’s ruse suggests someone weak-minded and gullible (why does he have to ask Edmund if it is Edgar’s handwriting?) It is possible, however, to interpret this sudden turn against Edgar as the hatred of one spurned by a favourite and thus paralleling Lear’s reaction to Cordelia. Clearly, an audience’s sympathy swings towards Gloucester when his eyes are put out. Whilst this was often left out of pre-nineteenth century productions, it has been performed with ever greater violence in recent years making Gloucester’s sanguine reaction “I stumbled when I saw” more difficult to accept. Nevertheless, this gives great dramatic urgency to the key theme of sight especially when Gloucester responds to Lear’s “you see how this world goes” with “I see it feelingly”. Gloucester’s key role can be seen as being the weaker counterpart to Lear. He is betrayed by a child, spurns a favourite, before being reunited (offstage) and suffers hugely, in his case, physically. Lear is betrayed by two daughters, spurns a favoured third and suffers hugely, in his case, mentally. Gloucester’s sufferings prepare us for those of Lear. Lear thus becomes more real and his suffering the more affecting. That he suffers in his mind shows his character to be on a different level from Gloucester; personal, human and yet somehow universal. The Fool The fool as professional entertainer was a well known figure in Elizabethan and Jacobean courtly circles. In the Folio edition, the fool is referred to as wearing motley, the traditional green and yellow dress of the fool. However, Shakespeare’s fool in Lear is not

simply an entertainer. In many ways he is more an advisor and clearly has a close relationship with Lear. They refer to each other as “nuncle” and “boy” suggesting a familiarity which has been formalized into a role play of adult and child. Indeed, the fool was traditionally associated with the innocent, natural wisdom of a child. Lear’s reflection on Cordelia’s death using the words “my poor fool is hanged” (V.iii.304) inevitably brings the fool back to mind at the end of the play, reminding us again of the relationship and of the fool’s understanding. The Arden introduction refers to the fool in Act 1 as “a lightning conductor, earthing the power of majesty, and humanizing Lear”. His insight brings out the folly in what Lear has done; he connects between the audience and the raging, titanic figure of Lear telling them that what they see is “Lear’s shadow” because he has “mad’st thy [his] daughters thy [his] mothers”. In Act 2, Regan and Goneril’s actions confirm the truth of the fool’s insight thus his focus is directed more to other characters and the audience and away form Lear himself. In Act 3 when Lear goes mad the fool is made completely redundant. Madness and folly are not so far apart: both take an alternative view of the world and it is through madness that Lear gains his own insight into the human condition. He has acquired the vision of the fool thus the fool fades away’ reduced to generalized social comment, but not before he has given us, in one of his songs, his own philosophy, the equivalent of Christian patience: He that has and a little tiny wit, With heigh-ho, the wind and the rain, Must make content with his fortunes fit, Though the rain it raineth every day. It is in another of the fool’s songs that a central complexity of the fools’ vision is to be found; That sir which serves and seeks for gain, And follows but for form, Will pack when it begins to rain, And leave thee in the storm; But I will tarry, the fool will stay, And let the wise man fly: The knave turns fool that runs away, The fool no knave perdy. (II.ii.266 – 274) The worldly ‘wisdom’ of the first four lines, which one might associate with Oswald, is rejected; the fool will stay whilst the “wise man” flees. Thus the fool is “no knave perdy (by God)”. The fool’s decision is instinctive, based on feelings, not worldly wisdom which is based on calculated profit. The fool follows Lear for love not profit and despite Lear’s faults. There is an interesting comparison to be made here with the St Paul’s words (as reported in I Corinthians 1:20), “hathe not God made the wisdome of this worlde foolish?” This is a paradox which mirrors that of the fool and which shows that a single

perspective is often inadequate. Cordelia’s blunt “nothing” is honest but could be said to be just as devastating in its effect as Goneril and Regan’s flattery. Lear decided to divide the kingdom out of the best of motives, but it turned into disaster. So the multiple perspectives which the fool offers lie at the heart of the play. Edgar finishes advising that we “Speak what we feel” but we have already seen that for Lear and Cordelia that has not worked. Cordelia, Goneril and Regan The relative impression created by the sisters in the love test depends on the formality of the staging: the more formal, the more Cordelia’s refusal to behave as would be expected seems like wilfulness. Similarly, Goneril and Regan seem to be less flatterers and more simply compliant daughters. The age difference could be a significant factor here also. Though neither Goneril nor Regan have children, it has suited the relationship between the daughters on stage to portray an age gap between Cordelia and her sisters. Thus Cordelia could appear naïve and headstrong whilst her sisters are experienced courtiers used to their father’s ways. On the other hand, Cordelia could appear young and innocent against her sisters’ older cynicism. Certainly all three sisters share their father’s characteristics. Cordelia stands up against him mirroring his ‘strong’ behaviour. Lear himself recognizes in Goneril’s exercising of her authority his own use of it, “But yet thou art my flesh, my blood, my daughter,/ Or rather a disease that’s in my flesh,/ Which I needs must call mine.” (II.ii.410-12) Yet Goneril and Regan go beyond anything they might have inherited: Regan is instrumental in putting out Gloucester’s eyes and Goneril later poisons her sister. Both treat their father abominably despite any qualms about the behaviour of his retinue; most damningly, once he has divested himself of power they are not interested in him, a fact made clear in their pointed references to his age, “O, sir, you are old” (II.ii.335). Their decisions throughout are made on the basis of calculated effect, not love, something felt most dramatically in the scene where they whittle down Lear’s retinue culminating in Regan’s “What need one” leading to Lear’s heartfelt response, “O, reason not the need!” Their relationship with their husbands characterizes them further. Regan interrupts the equally severe Cornwall to assert her authority whilst Goneril verbally bullies the mildmannered Albany. Regan appears to have a mate who matches her unfeeling nature. Goneril, however, clearly despises her husband (possibly a match made by her father and therefore further reason for discord between father and daughter?). With Cornwall’s demise and Goneril disenchanted with Albany, both are attracted to the younger, apparently virile Edmund. That both die as a result of their desire for Edmund appears to demonise their sexuality; it also offers a morally fitting end if one accepts that this desire for Edmund is based on his ability to provide them with power. Nevertheless, Cordelia,

despite her marriage to France, can seem sexless in comparison with these older, passionate women. Goneril has further cause for annoyance with her father in that, as the oldest, she might have expected, as a result of primogeniture (law of first born), to inherit the whole kingdom. Instead, she has to watch whilst Lear openly states his intention to give a third “more opulent” to his “joy” Cordelia who is referred to by her sisters as “last and least”. Cordelia’s stance against her father would certainly have shocked a contemporary audience though we might approve her sincerity. Her behaviour invites comparison with Desdemona who is equally forthright in her defiance of her father and her filial duty to him. As indicated previously, the degree of sympathy for Cordelia’s position will vary according to the formality of the staging. Another point of variance concerns her reappearance. The Folio has her entering at the head of a French army; the Quarto gives a description of her depicting her tears and patience and has her entering with a doctor. In a country which has fought many battles with France it does present difficulties to have her leading a conquering French army and as saviour. Indeed, there is some substance to the idea that Cordelia returns to reinstate Lear to the throne against his will rather than as one who comes simply to care for an ailing father. Nevertheless, Cordelia does appear as a saintly character whose forgiveness Lear needs to cleanse his guilt and clear his madness. And like Christ she comes to pay the price for other people’s sins, here Lear’s angry excesses which had initiated the whole series of events. The tears which she has shed, Lear is prepared to shed also marking a crucial development from his misogynistic attitude towards them as “women’s weapons”. She enables him to come to terms with his emotions. He kneels before her remembering how each daughter had kneeled before him in the love test and showing how he has come full circle. If one accepts that Cordelia, like Christ, must die as a martyr to atone for Lear’s sins, it is possible to accept the ending of the play as part of a Christian redemptionist reading. If one cannot accept this then her death becomes just another meaningless act in a random universe where the ability to love one another without any prospect of reward is mankind’s greatest achievement and which Cordelia symbolizes. TSC


								
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