King Lear is a play that was written by William Shakespeare, in 1606. The play is a tragedy, one of many written by Shakespeare; the definition of a tragedy is a play in which characters must struggle with circumstances and in which most meet death and despair, and King Lear fits that mould beautifully. Throughout the play the characters have to deal with King Lear giving away his Kingdom, banishing his favourite daughter Cordelia, and ultimately turning mad. The play also sees problems for other characters, including Lear’s other two daughters – Goneril and Regan – and for Edmund, Edgar, Gloucester, Kent and other characters. The play ends with most of the characters dieing, including Regan, Goneril, Cordelia, Lear, Edmund, Gloucester, France, Cornwall and the Fool.
Act 1, Scene 1 begins with Kent and Gloucester talking about Gloucester’s bastard son. The scene is set in Lear’s palace; however, we do not see the main character, Lear, straight away, as Shakespeare introduces him to us through other characters. This adds to the audiences expectations of Lear, and builds up his importance.
To add further to his superiority, Lear’s entrance is supported by trumpets playing, and a servant at his side. Lear’s first line in the play is a command, which again highlights his status as a King, and the way Lear speaks using the royal ‘we’ helps him to assert his authority.
Before Lear is introduced to the audience, however, Kent and Gloucester have an interesting discussion, which not only introduces the King, but also gives the audience information in which they will soon be able to use to establish a huge link between Lear and Gloucester. This link is a valuable sub-plot of the play, which, further into the play, teams with the plot, but thus far the audience is unaware of this. This first conversation gives the audience chance to establish Gloucester’s relationship between Edmund and Edgar – his sons. The audience learn that although in the past he was ashamed to admit his bastard son, Edmund, Gloucester now loves them both equally.
It turns out that the purpose of the meeting, which involves Lear, Goneril, Regan, Cordelia and Kent, is to divide Lear’s land up equally between his three daughters – Goneril, Regan and Cordelia. This shows that he loves his daughters equally, as does Gloucester with his two sons, which is the first link of many regarding the sub-plot I have just mentioned in the previous paragraph.
With reference to the title, the fist part of the play sees Lear as being serious and reasonable, as he appears to know his own mind, and is being sensible about why he is dividing his land. This would appear different to different audiences. To a contemporary audience this would be seen as very foolish, as in Elizabethan times Kings were believed to have been chosen by God, and by taking his position as King and splitting it up between his daughters, Lear is tampering with the Great Chain of Being, and is going against God. Therefore, to a contemporary audience, this event is straight away building up the tension. However, a modern audience may not understand this, and it could, to them, seem that at this moment Lear is being neither a blind fool nor a tragic father.
It is important to note, that the division of Lear’s kingdom also means the division of his work. This means that Lear still wants his status as a King, he just does not like the work that it entails; by dividing his land he can stay King, but with a lot less work involved. Again, a mistake carried out by a greedy fool.
However, as Lear’s speech progresses, the audience also learn that this is Lear’s first foolish mistake, as he is demanding a test of love from his three daughters, in return for a share of his kingdom, and Goneril, who goes first as she is the oldest, competes in this game perfectly. It is important to remember that a ‘test of love’ in any situation will always be unsuccessful, as the winner will always be the most insincere, in a greedy attempt to win whatever the prize is, and the creator of the test will, of course, be so vain that they will not see beneath the truth.
Right from the beginning of Goneril’s speech, the insincerity becomes clear – although not to Lear. Goneril uses a lot of similes and comparisons, for example, “Dearer than eyesight, space and liberty”. It is ironic that Goneril introduces this simile, as blindness is actually a theme in the play, and Goneril know that Lear will see beneath her words. The length of Goneril’s speech also reflects insincerity, as to truly express love cannot be done in words.
Before Lear gives Goneril the results of her test, Shakespeare has used the ‘aside’ device to introduce Cordelia into the plot. Cordelia is obviously struggling with what to do, as she loves her father so much that she does not want to deceive him for the sake of greed. We know that Cordelia’s words are truthful, as Shakespeare’s use of the ‘aside’ device ensures that she is talking only to the audience. Shakespeare has introduced this technique here to make the audience sympathise with Cordelia. It is this significant connection with the audience that compels them to support and feel for Cordelia throughout the entire play, as if they have established, already, a bond with the character.
Once Cordelia has spoken of her anguish to the audience, an oblivious King Lear rewards his daughter Goneril for her, by giving her a large portion of his land, which he also points out on the map.
It is then Regan’s turn to compete in this test of love and declare her love for her father. Her first line; “I am made of that same self metal as my sister”, is ironic, as Lear takes from this that Regan loves him just as much as Goneril does, (which Lear thinks is a great amount), but neither Regan nor Goneril love Lear that much; they are just after his land, and so by this Regan really means that she is just as shallow and as greedy as her sister, but she knows that Lear will not take bit to mean that. She then goes on to declare that she not only loves Lear as much as Goneril has already expressed; but more. She also says that she does not love anyone except Lear, despite the fact that she has a husband.
All of this, it seems, has earned Regan a large portion of Lear’s land, which is exactly equal in size as her sister, Goneril’s. Before Lear announces this, however, Shakespeare has made use again of the ‘aside’ device, to remind the audience of Cordelia’s presence and her problem. As in her initial aside, Cordelia uses the word ‘love’, but does not persist on it. From this alone, the audience already know that Cordelia is going to be different. Cordelia uses her ‘aside’ to unconvincingly suggest that Lear may realize her love, without her having to perform an insincere speech like those of her sisters’, although it is obvious that Cordelia is trying to convince herself of this as well as the audience.
Once Cordelia has expressed her concern to the audience, for the second time, Lear then rewards Regan, as I have already mentioned, with a portion of land equal to that that he has already rewarded Goneril. He then goes on to ask Cordelia, with great pleasure, as she is by far his favourite daughter, to give her speech, which he is sure will top those of her sisters easily. However, Cordelia simply replies, “Nothing, my Lord”. With this response, Shakespeare has tried to create several effects; the fact that she has said “nothing”, shows the audience that she has indeed been genuine, and that she was right in saying that she wasn’t going to cave in and recite an inauthentic speech. It also shows that Cordelia does not want to dignify herself to such a pathetic game, but to show that she is not being rude and that she does love him, she adds “my Lord”. Lear, clearly in a state of shock and disbelief, cannot believe and does not understand what is going on; “Nothing?” he replies, as if he has misheard his favourite daughter, to which Cordelia simply repeats, “Nothing”. Still in awe, Lear gives her one more chance, saying; “Nothing will come of nothing. Speak again”, explaining that Cordelia will not get any land unless she changes her answer.
Shakespeare has used an interesting technique here; the repetition of the word nothing – a quite obvious and ironic contrast to Goneril and Regan’s flowery speeches – highlights the insincerity of her sisters speeches. The fact that Cordelia says the word “nothing”, is also ironic, as to her Lear is everything, and she is everything to Lear. Also, Cordelia does not change her response, despite Lear’s reaction, and this shows that she displays the same stubborn characteristics as her father.
In response to Lear’s last line, Cordelia keeps control and explains why she has said “nothing”; this is that, although it upsets her to do it, she simply can’t express how much she loves him. She goes on to say that she loves him just as a daughter should; no more and no less. Cordelia uses the word “love” with love – she does not just throw it about and say it casually; when Cordelia says it she means it. The word is coming from her heart, and she does not persist the issue any more than is necessary.
Lear, still unable to believe the words that are being spoken right in front of him, gives his daughter yet another chance: to “mend your speech”; otherwise she will not get any of his land. Cordelia, however, still does not alter her speech, and sticks firmly to what she has already said to Lear; she says she loves him just like a daughter, and that her sisters are lying; they can’t possibly love him with all their hearts, as they both have husbands, whom they will undoubtedly love also. She also says that when she gets married, half of her love will be to her husband; the remaining half to Lear.
Shakespeare uses forms of respect carefully in King Lear, so that the audience can better establish relationships and status between characters. He uses this to show Lear’s astonishment and lapse from his high throne, as he formally requests of Cordelia “mend your speech a little”, but slips from King to father when she does not change her response by asking “but thy heart goes with this?”. This shows that Lear is confused, and for that brief moment he forgot where he was; clearly he is worried and does not know what to do. Again, with reference to the title, Lear shows his foolishness here, as he cannot distinguish between true, honest feelings and flattery, because as it is praise that Lear wants, and he cannot see beneath it. Not only is Lear arrogant, vain and shallow, but he is also very hasty and quick tempered. His foolishness coming out again, Lear, unable to rectify the situation; his respect and dignity seemingly disappearing, sees no choice but to banish his daughter. He would rather get rid of a loved one than admit his faults, and although this is making a mockery of his role of a father, it is sheer foolishness taking over, and not bad parenting.
It is his foolishness again, that turns Lear into a tragic father, as he disowns his own daughter, for the sake of his pride, however, it is, perhaps, the actions of a tragic father when Lear admits of Cordelia, “I loved her most”, as no father should favour one child over another; they should all be equal in his affection. This is where Gloucester confesses he went wrong, and that, despite his previous mistakes, he now loves and treats both his sons the same.
It is clear to the audience that Lear thinks very highly of himself, and one particular technique that Shakespeare uses is a metaphor/imagery: “Come not between the dragon and his wrath”. In this line, Lear is referring to himself as the dragon; a symbol of royal power, and something to be feared greatly. It is important to note that this is not the only reference to animal imagery that Shakespeare uses in the play. It is interesting to see how the animals that Lear refers to change as the play progresses; he starts off comparing himself to a dragon, yet later in the play he uses personification of an oyster. This animal imagery is, perhaps, Shakespeare’s way of conveying to the audience how Lear is feeling about himself throughout the play; I think this is an effective technique, which also helps me to distinguish whether Lear regards him self as a blind floor, a tragic father or neither. In this case, it is clear to me that Lear’s speech and actions are that of a blind fool, yet Lear evidently regards himself as neither.
In the same speech as his dragon imagery, Lear instructs Cordelia; “avoid my sight”. Although this is not of too much significance at first glance, I think Shakespeare’s choice of wording here is deliberate; it is ironic as it relates to the blindness theme that carries the play.
Lear also says, “my grave be my peace”, by which he is saying that he has nothing to look forward to. Lear is feeling sorry for himself, and is trying to make Cordelia feel guilty. She cannot, however, have sympathy for Lear, as the situation he is in now is his own fault.
Lear is so devoted to his favourite daughter that when she does the smallest thing, it is too much for him to bear; Lear’s obsession is not with love but with control.
When Lear invites himself to stay at Goneril and Regan’s houses, he imposes a lot of conditions, and despite giving the two of them his entire Kingdom, it is important to note that he does not want to lose his authority as a King. This gesture suggests that Lear is acting as a blind fool, as he wants all the benefits of being a King, without having to do anything for it, and he can’t see that this is a vital mistake; if he is too old to run the Kingdom, he cannot be fit to remain King.
After Lear’s speech, Kent tries to change his mind. He speaks politely to Lear, addressing him as “Royal Lear”, and tells Lear how much he means to him. Shakespeare has chosen for Kent to say this as Lear loves to be praised, and Kent really does love Lear. Lear replies, “the bow is bent and drawn; make from the shaft”. Shakespeare uses the metaphor of a bow and arrow to tell Kent that Lear’s mind is already made up. This is a powerful and violent metaphor, which, again, shows that Lear thinks of himself to be feared. Also, this line indicates that Lear may have realised that he has made a mistake, but as King he is to proud to change his mind, so he sticks with his decision. The line shows this because Lear is not telling Kent that he is right with his decision, or that he still agrees with it, just that he has already come to a decision, and as King he cannot change it, for he would be seen as weak, an unfit to rule a Kingdom.
Shakespeare then uses Kent to insult and disrespect Lear, as the audience know how much Lear values people’s opinions of him, and Kent thinks that this may make Lear see how foolish he has been. Kent’s speech goes on to inform Lear that his action involves the rejection of reason on a scale of appalling proportions, and tells Lear that his other two daughters were deceiving him; it was Cordelia who was telling the truth.
When Kent says that “Lear is mad”, this is the first time in the play that we hear the description “mad” in connection with Lear. Although Lear is not actually mad at this point in the play, Shakespeare is giving the audience the idea that he will start to go mad because he is making irrational decisions without reasoning, and he won’t be swayed from these.
Again, Lear uses the phrase “out of my sight”, which is deliberate language chosen by Shakespeare as it supports the irony that Lear cannot see that it is he who is blind.
Kent is the first person to actually tell Lear, however, that he is being blind, by saying, “See better, Lear, and let me still remain the true blank of thine eye”. Here Kent is saying that Lear is blind, but if he were to learn to see better, he would realise that he is making a huge mistake. It is here that the audience first get the idea that Kent may like Cordelia, as he is telling Kent to let him be his target, not Cordelia, which could mean that Kent is trying to protect Cordelia.
Shakespeare shows that Lear is going mad when he starts to swear on the Gods; it is Kent that stops him by reminding him of what he is doing.
The next incident that Shakespeare shows Lear as a blind fool is when Lear says “Hear me, recreant”, – it is ironic that Lear is calling Kent a recreant, as he can not see that Kent has not been traitorous.
With each incident that occurs within the play, it becomes increasingly more obvious to the audience that although Lear’s actions may come across as those of a tragic father’s, they are indeed those of a blind fool.
This is because Lear is acting as a father, but he only makes decisions and carries out his actions under sheer foolishness. He is, it appears, unable to see when people are deceiving him, as long as they praise and speak highly of him.
Lear is now starting to sound like a mad fool every time that he speaks; he discusses how he still retains his royal powers and often refers to his Kingdom. Lear does not really have much left in the way of royal powers, as he has divided his Kingdom between his two daughters.
The more that Shakespeare shows Lear as being irrational, mad and blind, the easier it will be for him to turn Lear into a mad character, as the audience will be able to see why and how Lear has turned mad, and it will be more realistic.
Kent is just and rightly, and he tells Lear that if he is not going to change his mind and see reason, then he will adhere to Lear’s wishes, and leave the country; Lear has wasted his last chance to put the situation right and see the truth. Before he leaves, Kent informs Regan and Goneril that he knows exactly what they were up to, and sarcastically uses the phrase “words of love” to describe their “large speeches”. This shows that Kent can see the truth, and that he knows that Cordelia is the only one that really loves him, even though Lear can’t see this. Shakespeare has used Kent here to show that it is Lear who is being irrational and foolish, as it is only he who cannot see beyond Regan and Goneril’s speeches.
The next event sees Lear as being a tragic father, as the result of him disowning his daughter is that she is almost worthless. By saying “when she was dear to us, we did hold her so; But now her price is fallen”, Lear is suggesting that Cordelia was worth a lot when she was his favourite daughter, but now that he has disowned her she is not worth much at all. Lear refers to Cordelia as if she is an object, which is particularly shown in the line “but now her price is fallen”, and by referring to Cordelia like this, Lear is confirming how he thinks of her since she disrespected him. Shakespeare has used the metaphor of bartering when Lear is referring to Cordelia as it is a way for Lear to humiliate her.
Although it is Lear’s blindness to the truth that is guiding his decisions, nobody should talk about their children this way, no matter what they have done, so these actions are those of a tragic father.
It seems that although Lear is trying to act tough, and not back down, he is probably more overcome with anger than actual hatred. His repetition of the word “hate” for effect perhaps shows that he does not mean it as much as he is trying to imply, and his long speeches of hatred for Cordelia are not dissimilar in insincerity to those of Regan and Goneril’s, when they are trying to “earn” their share of Lear’s Kingdom, except this time it is Lear who cannot see through his own words and into his heart.
Cordelia stays reasoned and controlled in comparison to her father; she shows her dignity even though she knows that she is in the right, however Lear will not listen to reasoning. This action is that of a blind fool, as it is foolish that he will not listen to her.
Again, Lear is acting as both a tragic father when he tells Cordelia “better thou hadst not been born than not to have pleased me better”. This is an awful thing to say to his daughter, and no father should ever say anything of this sort; it is the ultimate thing that Lear can say to Cordelia. But by saying “than not to have pleased me better”, Lear shows his selfish, foolish side. He says would rather not have had his daughter than to have been upset or disrespected by her, but this is probably untrue as, as I have already mentioned, it is Lear’s anger speaking here, and not his hatred for his daughter.
Lear is the only person who cannot see the truth, and Kent, France, Burgundy and Cordelia are all trying to persuade him that he is wrong. The fact that so many people are telling Lear that he is wrong gives Shakespeare the perfect opportunity to convey to the audience that Lear is starting to go mad; his blindness, madness and feeble mind are the first signs of this.
It seems, however, that Burgundy is only trying to persuade Lear that he is wrong so that he can get the dowry that they have already agreed, and when Lear and Burgundy are discussing this, Lear says the word “nothing”. This is ironic, as it is the word that caused the mess that they are now in. Shakespeare has used this word deliberately, as Lear is trying to treat Cordelia like she has treated him.
Lear is trying to use Burgundy to replace Cordelia, and he even calls him noble, which is ironic seeing as Burgundy has shows himself to be dishonest and money-grabbing, whilst Cordelia has shown herself to be honest and noble, only to be banished by the King.
Lear’s actions as a blind fool continue, as he leaves before Cordelia has said farewell to him. This is so that he can get the last word, but it just makes him look even more foolish. Even though all of this is upsetting Cordelia she stays strong, as she says to her sisters that “time shall unfold what plighted cunning hides”, which means that the truth will come out eventually. This is because Cordelia is honest, and she believes that honestly will prevail.
What is surprising is that even Goneril and Regan both know that Lear has acted foolishly, both by banishing Cordelia and by banishing Kent, and Regan concludes that he is going mad with his old age; again, Shakespeare is preparing the audience for what is going to happen to Lear. Goneril agrees with her sister, and says “if our father carry authority with such disposition as he bears, this last surrender of his will but offend us”. This line shows that Goneril and Regan are worried, and it prepares that audience for the last line of the act: “We must do something, and i’ the heart”. This ends the scene on an ominous note of a plot to do something against Lear.
Lear seems only to deteriorate from here, and the next the audience see of him is in the beginning of Act One, Scene Four, where he is staying at Goneril and Albany’s palace. The first clue that Lear is now well on his way to going mad is when he says “thou servest me, and I’ll love thee”. This is a foolish mistake as it shows that Lear trusts and is befriending who he thinks is a stranger; it suggests that he is not fully aware of what he is doing. This is also suggested as Lear uses the word “love”, which is a strong emotion, and is over the top, seeing as he does not realise the stranger is Kent.
Further on, the Fool calls Lear a fool, which he lets him get away with; this is ironic as he banished and disowned his own daughter because she did not flatter him enough, yet he is letting his servant call him a fool! This clearly shows that Lear is taking a turn for the worst, and is loosing his mind. The fool goes on to point out that Lear “hadst little wit in thy crown when thou gavest thy golden one away”. Shakespeare has used the Fool here to try and shake Lear to his senses; everybody knows that he has made foolish mistakes and is going mad, and the Fool is trying to get Lear to be able to see this. Shakespeare’s use of formal and informal language comes in here, as the Fool, who should be addressing Lear with utmost respect, is talking to Lear as his equal; he says thy and thou, which is not how one would address a King.
In the same discussion, the Fool sings “that such a king should play bo-peep”, which suggests the metaphor of Lear blindfolding himself, (as if for a game); by this the Fool is suggesting that Lear is not seeing what is going on with his daughters. Shakespeare has chosen this particular metaphor as it ironically relates to the theme of blindness throughout the play.
Act One, Scene Five, though relatively short, is a very significant part of the play. Thanks to the Fool, Lear admits of Cordelia “I did her wrong”; he can finally see that she did not deserve to be banished, and that her words were the most meaningful of all. However, it is now that Lear starts to go crazy, as he has not only admitted that he was wrong about Cordelia to the Fool, but he has also admitted it to himself.
The Fools reply, “Canst tell how an oyster makes his shell?”, is a continuation of the animal imagery Shakespeare used earlier on in the play – when Lear referred to himself as a dragon. The imagery has changed, from a mighty dragon to a helpless oyster, and this represents how Lear feels about himself. The oyster signifies that Lear has put himself in a shell, and he is the only one who can get out of it; nobody can get through to him, to help him, because of this shell he has built around himself. Also, people who go crazy are thought to be “in their own world”, and this applies to Lear; his shell is “his own world”.
The Fool decides that Lear “should not have been old till thou hadst been wise”. By this, the Fool is saying that Lear is not wise. Lear responds with realisation that he is mad, but he does not want to be: “O, let me not be mad, not mad, sweet heaven”. At this point Lear is being overcome with agony remembering the grave injustice that he has served his favourite daughter, Cordelia, and his other foolish mistakes.
Act Two and Three sees Lear in the middle of a storm. The storm is an effect used by Shakespeare to show several things. Firstly, Shakespeare is symbolising the weather to represent Lear’s mood; at the moment the weather is conveying that Lear is angry has now gone mad, as the storm is wild, ferocious and bad-tempered.
Also, as Elizabethan’s (including Shakespeare), believed that it was up to God to chose the King, and not individuals, such as Lear, the storm is Shakespeare’s way of showing that everything isn’t right in the world, and God is showing his displeasure in Lear.
In Act Four, Scene Seven, when Lear has been united with his daughter, he says “I am old and foolish”. This clearly shows that he is aware of his mistakes and sees what he has done is foolish.
When Lear renters, holding Cordelia dead in his arms, he says “Mine eyes are not o’ the best”, which shows that even Lear himself can see that he has become a blind fool, and has not been making accurate, sensible decisions.
It is ironic that when Lear dies, (Act Five, Scene Three), the last words he speaks are “Look there, look there”, which ties in with the main theme of blindness that is carried on throughout the play.
Overall, I think that Shakespeare has presented the character of Lear as a blind fool. This is because, although on occasions he may act as, and make decisions as, a tragic father, Lear is only doing so because he is blind to what is right and makes these mistakes through sheer foolishness. Also, not all of his mistakes are related to him being a father; some are as a King, and some are just as a person.