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.
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: Lear
“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:
“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:
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
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.
Kent: 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.
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 punished.
For many people, Lear’s family is a dysfunctional one; there is no mother and his avowed favourite is disinherited in a capricious impulsive moment of rage, by a man who must feel omnipotent.
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. 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."
One cannot trust Fortuna; she is fickle, constant only in her inconstancy. She is referred to derogatively:
The fool: Fortune, that arrant whore,
Ne’re turns the key to the poor. II :4 52.
Kent: 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
Albany: This judgement of the heavens, that makes us tremble,
Touches us not with pity.
Cordelia: 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.
Play opens with two nobles speculating on King’s preferences to Dukes Albany and Cornwall. They show abject deference to the King’s authority.
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”
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.
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