Lear, the King of Britain, is a powerful and important man. But he’s getting near retirement age. Lear thinks he can hand over the hard work of ruling the kingdom to his children and relax. He wants to enjoy the power of still being king without any of the responsibility. His main flaw at the beginning of the play is that he values appearance above reality.
In this way Lear is unable to separate power and responsibility. His two eldest daughters are ready to run their own lives – and their own kingdoms. They resent Lear acting as if he is still in charge. Yet the King is shocked when his daughters assert their independence from him. After all, he gave them everything they have. Not to mention Lear’s character – dominated by his arrogant self-will, which has been nourished by this absolute power from the beginning. The slightest opposition to his power makes him fly into blind rage.
Lear’s second mistake is to exile the people who won’t give in to his power. He chooses to stage a “love test” among his three daughters, so he can give the biggest slice of the kingdom to the one who loves him most. When Cordelia refuses to take part, Lear is so angry that he orders her out of the kingdom. And when his advisor, Kent, warns him that this is a terrible idea, Lear throws him out, too. It is not enough to merely banish Kent, Lear actually threatens him with capital punishment – the problem here is that Kent “attacked” Lear’s ego by questioning his actions. The same degree of punishment is inflicted upon Cordelia – Lear completely disowned her by treating her as if he never knew her.
And what happens if you actually provoke Lear? He strikes Goneril’s Gentleman, insults Oswald the steward and his curses on Goneril are fearsome.
Lear wants to be treated as a king and to enjoy the title, but he doesn’t want to fulfil a king’s obligations of governing for the good of his subjects. Similarly, his test of his daughters demonstrates that he values a flattering public display of love over real love. He doesn’t ask “which of you doth love us most,” but rather, “which of you shall we say doth love us most?” (1.1.49).
So Lear has to deal with the power struggle his retirement sparked without two of the people who could have smoothed the transition. (Kent does come back disguised as Caius, a peasant, but this means he only has a peasant’s power – enough to take care of Lear, but not enough to soothe his political worries.)
Lear realises his stupidity soon enough. His retirement starts a series of conflicts that led the country to civil war. Two of Lear’s own children turn against him, and Lear goes mad and wanders around in a thunderstorm, shouting at the sky. In some sense, what happens to Lear is tragic. He ends up suffering in ways that elderly people are not supposed to. Worst of all, Lear is deserted by his own flesh and blood.
Lear has been likened to a child living inside a grown man’s body and Shakespeare’s depiction of Lear makes this plausible. Shakespeare underline’s Lear’s brutality, fickleness, bitterness, egotism and self-pity. He is also quite vindictive: he wishes vengeance on all those who wrong him (including his offspring). Regan and Goneril actually provide a fairly accurate account of Lear early in the play when they comment on his temper ‘the best and soundest of his time hath been but rash’ – they are sure that his age has weakened his judgement and that this anger can break out in ‘inconstant starts’.
Yet Lear also experiences an incredible transformation. Through adversity, Lear gains a new perspective on life. He rejects power and politics and decides that what really matters is being with the people he loves. For the first time, Lear also feels sympathy for the hardship undergone by others. His strange journey makes Lear a better person. He moves from pride, egotism and spiritual blindness to understanding, insight and love. During the storm scene, Lear moves from worrying about things that only affect him to pondering the plight of others. We can see this in Act 3 Scene 2 when he shows sympathy for the Fool. Suffering himself, he begins to think of needs that are common to all mankind – he also feels ashamed for his neglect of the poor and needy.
Lear’s new-found attentiveness to the needy is joined by a thirst for knowledge. Edgar’s appearance as Tom sparks Lear’s madness, but it is during this madness that he learns some truths that were denied to him while he was sane. Edgar, dressed in a blanket, becomes for Lear a gripping image of humanity stripped down to its bare bone. When Lear meets Gloucester in Act 4, Scene 6 he expresses some of these insights that he has learned and he provides an analysis of reality and appearance, justice and authority – the exercise of power, social inequalities and the blinding power of flattery.
Lear acknowledges his guilt when he reunites with Cordelia and by Act 5 he seems to be looking forward to a paradise as they are on their way to prison (‘the mystery of things’). But this is Lear, and even the most evil of children can smile once or twice and we see his true nature once more after Cordelia dies:
A plague upon you, murderers, traitors, all!
I killed the slave that was a – hanging thee
I have seen the day, with my good biting falchion,
I would have made them skip
Perhaps it was important that Cordelia died only so we could know whether Lear had actually transformed. Cordelia’s death was almost like a test to see what Lear’s reaction would be – and his response was accurate to the picture of Lear that we saw at the opening of the play. Lear kills the slave who hanged his daughter and seeks revenge on…everyone.
Are you mad?
But let’s go back to this “love test” for a moment. Since Kent and Gloucester discuss the division of the kingdom at the beginning of the play, it seems like the actual land distribution has already been decided. Is the love test just a formality then? If so, why does Lear banish Cordelia when she refuses to participate? It could be that Lear is already losing his mind in this opening scene. This explains why he would stage such an inane competition in the first place, and also why he reacts so aggressively when Cordelia doesn’t play along. On the other hand, it could be that Lear is totally sane, but incredibly self-centred. Lear thinks he is god, and Cordelia’s refusal to go along with his plan is like blasphemy to him.
Madness is one of the central themes of the play and Lear’s madness is part of the paradoxical structure of the play. Strangely, during Lear’s mad scenes, his lunacy is allowed to co-exist with his deepest thoughts. Much like Gloucester’s blindness, Lear’s madness becomes a positive value. Lear is set free from conventional restraints and limitations, and can see the defects of society from a new, albeit mad, perspective. Lear’s madness follow these events:
- He is rebuffed by Cordelia (1.1)
- He is attacked by Goneril (making him question himself)
- He realises that he has wronged Cordelia (ego prohibits him from acting on it)
- He reaches full recognition of his evils (1.5)
- First moment of insanity ‘O let me not be mad, not mad, sweet heaven’ (Act 1)
- Physical symptoms of hysteria: seeing Kent in the stocks
- Rejected by Regan – the storm (parallel with the madness in his mind)
- Lear identifies with the storm and invokes the storm to destroy the seeds of matter
- Poor Tom is ‘naked poverty’ – Lear fears he will become this
- Edgar (acting mad) sparks off Lear’s complete madness
- Exposure to the elements, physical exhaustion hinder Lear’s recovery from shock
- Tries to identify with ‘unaccommodated man’ by tearing off his clothes
- Trial scene marks his mad peak, Lear is ‘crowned with rank fumiter and furrow weeds’
- Sleep, confession and love from Cordelia restore his wits
- Lear never returns to the real world – he stays with Cordelia in her kingdom
Who Am I?
Some have compared the role of King Lear to a mountain that many people have tried – and failed – to scale. Others argue that Lear’s character is not so mysterious or hard to master. As the famous Shakespearean actor, Sir Laurence Olivier, once said, “Lear is easy. He’s like all of us, really: he’s just a stupid old fart.” Which brings us to the Big Question…
Is Lear just a “stupid old fart”? Which in turn brings us to the Second Big Question…
Who is Lear? This question is really the heart of the play. King Lear is, in a way, an experiment in identity loss. Most of the characters in the play go through an “Argh, who am I?” moment. Lear himself loses the most: his kingship, his relationship to his daughters, and eventually, his mind. Gloucester loses his sight and at least one son. Edgar loses his good name. The characters in the play keep asking the same question: What makes me who I am? And when that identity is taken away, what’s left?
The answer seems pretty simple. There’s always one response you can give: “I’m a human being.” Throughout the play, the answers to even this question keep changing. Observing the way his own wife treats her father, Albany concludes that people are no better than bloodthirsty sharks that turn on each other if any of them show a weakness. “Humanity must perforce prey on itself, / like monsters of the deep,” he says (4.2.50-51). Gloucester, in despair, concludes that human life is just a sick game played for the amusement of the gods. “As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods,” Gloucester says. “They kill us for their sport” (4.1.38-39).
And what of our title character? Lear looks at the shivering, half-naked body of Poor Tom the beggar and concludes that this is true humanity, without the perfumes and fancy clothes that society uses to hide what people are really like. “Thou art the thing itself,” Lear tells Poor Tom. “Unaccommodated man is no more but such a poor, bare, forked animal as thou art” (3.4.104-106).
All the animal references in the play reinforce this same theme: People are, at the core, no different – and certainly no better – than animals. As Lear mourns over Cordelia’s body, he asks bitterly, “Why should a dog, a horse, a rat have life / and thou no breath at all?” (5.3.305-306). What’s tragic about this line is that Lear knows the answer to his question. If people are really just “poor, bare, forked animals,” there’s nothing to separate Cordelia from a dog or a horse or a rat. She has no special claim on life. There’s no reason that a Cordelia should have breath while a dog, a horse or a rat doesn’t. This is an unbearable thought, but it’s one of the play’s possible conclusions.
With Shakespeare, of course, there’s never one conclusion. Lear’s idea that humans are no better than animals is compelling, but we can’t take it at face value – it was based, after all, on false premises. When Lear looks at Poor Tom, he thinks he’s looking at “the thing itself,” a poor beggar too hungry and too miserable to put on one of the masks of society.
But we all know that Poor Tom is actually Edgar, a rich, privileged man who has disguised himself as homeless out of desperation. Lear thinks he’s found the bare essence of humanity, but what he’s really found is just another front, another human disguise. Edgar’s parade of disguises – all successful – suggests that there is no real human nature, just a series of roles people play, partly determined by them and partly determined by society and the people around them.
The world is, as Lear says, just a “great stage of fools” (4.6.179). Identity is fluid and unreliable. Edgar is forced to desert himself to save his own life. “Edgar I nothing am,” he says, negating his own identity (2.2.192). He’s saying he’s not Edgar any more, but he’s also literally saying that he is nothing, that there is no core of “true” identity that survives outward changes. Beneath all the masks that people wear, there is… nothing. This is a rather bleak outlook. But it’s not the only outlook. Some characters, like Edmund, actually assert their identity, multiple roles or not. Some characters are unchanging, others are quite plastic and malleable. You could argue that, indeed, there’s nothing under those masks, or you could argue that there is some human essence there, be it compassion or determination or love. So while we search to understand King Lear, King Lear searches to understand… King Lear.
An important question to ask is whether Lear develops as a character—whether he learns from his mistakes and becomes a better and more insightful human being. In some ways the answer is no: he doesn’t completely recover his sanity and emerge as a better king. But his values do change over the course of the play. As he realises his weakness and insignificance in comparison to the awesome forces of the natural world, he becomes a humble and caring individual. He comes to cherish Cordelia above everything else and to place his own love for Cordelia above every other consideration, to the point that he would rather live in prison with her than rule as a king again.