In creating King Lear, William Shakespeare set the stage for one of the bleakest portrayals of our world ever to be written. Although this play was written in the early 1600s, its dark implications resonate all too easily in our modern world. In King Lear, Shakespeare explores many themes about the coldness of the world. But is the natural world unjustified in its cruelty to humankind? Or does humankind invite this torment upon itself with its selfish and unnatural behaviors? This question lies at the heart of the play.
King Lear is a story of a man who loses everything. Yet, contrary to many stories of this type, there is no redemption for Lear in the end. Even in the tragedy genre, some good can usually be gleaned from the text, or at least characters meet their just ends. However, this play’s woeful conclusion does not even provide a single thread of optimism. Shakespeare depicts the world in grim circumstances, unable to be rectified in any way because the characters actions oppose nature’s intents. Peter Moore explains the relationship between nature and society, saying, “[T]he social order is part and parcel of the divinely ordained fabric of nature;” therefore, “disturbances in the order of nature foretell disaster for humanity” (187). This establishes nature as a viable influence in the lives of humankind, and it can be understood that humanity’s acts against nature will produce natural acts against humanity, perpetuating worldly corruption.
But the danger of corrupting the natural order of things does not remain within the confines of the play. Von Engeln describes the variance of many elements of life over the centuries, but reminds us that “nature is a more staid dame–although she too changes her garb with the seasons, the cut and the cloth of the dress she assumes in each remains the same through the centuries. Thus the climate of Great Britain, the contour of her hills and vales are now as they were in Shakespeare’s time” (573). Nature is timeless, abiding by unchanging laws and expecting humanity to do the same. Therefore, these natural laws function in our modern world as they function in the world of Shakespeare. In King Lear, we watch as the course of nature completely disassembles the title character to the point where he loses his identity and offers him no chance of redemption, displaying the true horrors of a defective world.
The loss of Lear’s identity begins at the very start of the play with Lear’s loss of authority. He has decided to divide his kingdom in three and give those portions to his daughters. Lear claims, ” ‘[T]is our fast intent / To shake all cares and business from our age, / Conferring them on younger strengths while we / Unburdened crawl toward death” (I.i.38-41). This abdication of the throne is not a noble deed, but “an act of folly and an affront to nature” (Moore 177). Lear is relinquishing his responsibilities before his time, and subsequently pays for that mistake, because eventually, this “reversal of nature […] brings down the storm on Lear’s head” (Moore 177). After announcing that the daughter who professes the greatest love for him will receive the largest section of the kingdom, his two vile daughters, Goneril and Regan, gush with false proclamations of love for him. His youngest and favorite daughter, Cordelia, speaks from her heart, saying, “You have begot me, bred me, loved me. I / Return those duties back as are right fit, / Obey you, love you, and most honor you” (I.i.96-98). She loves him exactly as a daughter should love her father, but this is not good enough for Lear, and he disowns her. Out of concern for Cordelia’s unwarranted banishment, Kent objects to Lear’s rash behavior, protesting, “Thy youngest daughter does not love thee least, / Nor are those emptyhearted whose low sounds / Reverb no hollowness” (I.i.153-155). This enrages Lear even more, and he banishes Kent as well. Lear succeeds in separating himself from the two most loyal and honest characters in the play. This punishment of virtue marks even more clearly the wretchedness of an unnatural world.
With the reduction of royal authority, Lear already starts to feel lost, because being King was an important element of his identity, presumably for many years. To have that suddenly disappear confuses his sense of self. Lear’s lost authority now belongs to his two deceitful daughters, and they relish in using this power against him. In fact, the roles of Lear and his two daughters reverse, making his authority inferior to that of his own children. Lear is now at the mercy of Goneril and Regan’s ruthless quest for power. This is first played out on stage in Act 1 Scene 4 at Albany’s palace. Here, Goneril reveals to her father her true feelings for him. She does not love him with “A love that makes breath poor and speech unable,” as she claims in the first scene (I.i.60). She certainly is speechless no longer, reprimanding him for the way his servants have apparently defiled her home. She orders the reduction of Lear’s attendants, yet another loss. While Goneril is telling him this, Lear reveals his diminished sense of identity, asking, “Who is it that can tell me who I am?” (I.iv.227). His daughters no longer obey him and are now commanding him. The children now govern their father, something entirely unnatural. This would not be the case if Lear had not stepped down from the throne before his time was through. His unnatural actions are already breeding vengeance from nature, stripping him not only of royal authority, but of authority over his own flesh and blood.
Another element of loss in the play is Lear’s loss of youth. From the very beginning of the play, Lear mentions his “crawl toward death” (I.i.41). Contrary to his self-induced loss of authority, Lear’s aging is a completely natural process. However, the madness he descends to is not. Lear has convinced himself that the prime of his life is over, revealing at the end, “I have seen the day, with my good biting falchion / I would have made them skip. I am old now, / And these same crosses spoil me” (V.iii.281-283). Lear connects his identity to the days when he used to valiantly wield his sword in battle. But since those youthful days are gone, that part of his identity is as well. Who is to say that one’s late years cannot be just as great as youth? Lear would disagree, because he completely dismisses this possibility, as we know from the very beginning with the abdication of his throne. He gives up. He sinks into a grave state of consciousness, buried so deep in his misery that he cannot accept nature’s course on his body. Not to say that aging is preferable to youth, but our lives do not need to be in such a desperate state of decline in our old age. It is natural to perhaps have some fears or worries, but no one should need to feel this wretched.
As Derek Cohen explains in his article about King Lear, “We, the living, know we must die but have no way of knowing what death is or means beyond the obvious-but-culturally-determined perception that death is or seems to be opposite to life” (371). In all fairness, the thought of one’s own death is an alarming one, making aging an equally intimidating idea. But also possible with old age are desirable qualities like wisdom and experience, and with those, the confidence to seize exactly what one wants from life. The fact that Shakespeare does not portray Lear with these qualities is a bold statement. Instead of earning wisdom with the loss of youth, Lear gains a growing hatred toward life. Lear laments, “I am a man more sinned against than sinning” (III.ii.59-60). He feels that the forces of nature have wronged him more than he has wronged them. But in his corrupt world, sin is perpetual. Humankind sins against nature, therefore nature reacts accordingly. This is illustrated in the text in the Fool’s prophecy: “When every case in law is right, / No squire in debt, nor no poor knight; / When slanders do not live in tongues, / Nor cutpurses come not to throngs; / When usurers tell their gold i’th’ field, / And bawds and whores do churches build, / Then comes the time, who lives to see’t, / That going shall be used with feet” (III.iii.87-94). The Fool’s prophecy tells of the impossibility of any kind of Utopian world, showing he understands the inherent corruption of man and the way nature must confront it.
In the presence of the great storm, which can be seen as the character of Nature herself, Lear meets Edgar as Poor Tom. Poor Tom’s body is bare, exposed to the elements, and enduring the wrath of Nature. This leads Lear to question, “Is man no more than this?” (III.iv.101-102). Is man no more than a poor, naked creature at the mercy of the elements? “Unaccommodated / man is no more but such a poor, bare, forked animal as thou art,” Lear says to Poor Tom (III.iv.105-107). To feel what it means to be a real, natural man, Lear strips his own clothing in the face of the storm. It is perhaps here, at his very lowest point that Lear starts to realize what his identity as a member of the human race means. It is definitely a turning point for him. Perhaps Lear learns that “[p]ride tells us we are everything; necessity shows us we are nothing. In our nothingness we can discover the truth about ourselves and love for others” (Driscoll 178). Maybe he realizes that things like power and age do not define us as people, but who we are when everything is taken away from us-that is when the real person emerges.
Yet Lear never gets the chance to explore this revelation, and his greatest loss is in losing his chance for redemption. After the storm, he is reunited with his loyal, loving daughter, Cordelia, and it seems like there may be hope for him yet. However, this tragic story offers no happy ending. Upon seeing her father in this weakened state, Cordelia cries, “O my dear father! Restoration hang / Thy medicine on my lips, and let this kiss / Repair those violent harms that my two sisters / Have in thy reverence made!” (IV.vii.27-30). The word “restoration” suggests Cordelia’s virtuous redeeming qualities. A little while later, Lear awakens from a death-like sleep, and admits, “I am a very foolish fond old man, / Fourscore and upward, not an hour more nor less; / And, to deal plainly, / I fear I am not in my perfect mind” (IV.vii.61-64). However, his admittance of these faults or weaknesses shows some knowledge of his sense of self. This would seem to be a step toward redemption, acknowledgment of his foolishness and weakness, his identity.
However, in the final act, Lear and Cordelia are both taken away to be hanged, on the orders of Goneril and Regan, their own family members. This in itself is a crime against natural law. Family is supposed to be the one group of people that you can always trust. But Goneril and Regan are so bloodthirsty for power, that they sever even this sacred bond to achieve their goals. Their warped vision embodies the worst of corruption in the world. And it is for this reason that none of the characters in this play can be redeemed. In a world full of so much evil, nature eventually turns its back on humankind and becomes as ruthless as humans themselves.
Lear escapes the hanging, but for Cordelia, it is too late. He enters the stage with his lifeless daughter in his arms, with primordial cries of the deepest agony: “Howl, howl, howl! Oh, you are men of stones! / Had I your tongues and eyes, I’d use them so / That heaven’s vault should crack. She’s gone forever” (V.iii.262-264). Lear proceeds to hold a mirror up to Cordelia’s face, only to see if her breath would cloud the surface. But no breath escapes her mouth, because she is truly dead. If one character could have redeemed Lear in this play, it would have been Cordelia, for she “is a paragon of virtue, […] she perfectly adheres to the law of nature” (Moore 181). But her death assures that he will receive no spiritual absolution. “Is this the promised end?” Kent wonders, heartbroken (V.iii.268). Thisis the end, as promised by the world they fashioned full of corruption and selfishness. After his final declaration of sorrow over Cordelia’s death, Lear dies also, for he had nothing left. As Moore suggests, “[O]ur greater distress at Cordelia’s death lies in its effect on Lear, so close to happness after such torment-and then cruelly blasted” (187). In the end, it is not that Lear is beyond salvation, but the world he lives in is, and it is instead bound for damnation.
In this way, Shakespeare’s King Lear not only portrays the tragic story of a man, but more significantly, tragic implications for the world. Cohen describes the “feeling that haunts us in King Lear, as though we were witnessing something universal, a conflict not so much of particular persons as of the powers of good and evil in the world” (383). Nature is often thought to be part of the good of the world, but the tragedy of King Lear shows that it also possesses a more turbulent side, which will emerge if necessary. Although Lear’s character does gain a significant amount of insight throughout the play, the corrupt world he lives in does not allow for redemption. Within Lear’s premature renouncement of power, Goneril and Regan’s inhumane personalities, and Lear’s inability to cope with age naturally, Nature found enough reason to renounce humanity from her care and instead retaliate by responding to humanity with a taste of its own evil and ugliness.
Cohen, Derek. “The Malignant Scapegoats of King Lear .” Studies in English Literature 49.2 (2009): 371-389. Project MUSE. Web. 8 Dec. 2009.
Driscoll, James P. “The Vision of King Lear .” Shakespeare Studies 10 (1977): 159-189. Academic Search Complete. Web. 5 Dec. 2009.
Moore, Peter R. “The Nature of King Lear .” English Studies 87.2 (2006): 169-190. Academic Search Complete. Web. 5 Dec. 2009.
Shakespeare, William. “King Lear.” The Complete Works of William
Shakespeare. Ed. David Bevington. New York: Pearson Longman, 2009. Print.
Von Engeln, O. D. “Shakespeare, the Observer of Nature.” The Scientific Monthly 2.6
(1916): 573-588. JSTOR. Web. 7 Dec. 2009.