Lear 1769 unknown artistLear’s narrative arc

Lear’s first scene shows him as the sole judge in a ‘game’ of his own devising. Having already divided his kingdom, he now wants the portion allotted to each daughter to be dependent on a public statement of love. What the audience immediately sees is that Goneril and Regan are willing to engage in this vanity exercise, telling their father what he wants to hear (rather than what they actually feel). However Cordelia refuses to ‘play’, being too blunt and honest to go along with her father’s desires. The speed and verbal violence of Lear’s rejection of Cordelia shows him to be impetuous, wilful and blind to the truth. 
Having divided his kingdom between Goneril and Regan, he is soon rejected by both of them and, as a result of this and his own unmeasured responses, finds himself wandering in the wilderness, an outcast and insane. His pride and his irascibility have blinded him to the truth and have clouded his ability to discriminate between good and evil. As his daughters noted in Act 1 Scene 1, Lear ‘hath ever but slenderly known himself.’
However, Lear’s suffering eventually leads him to understand his failings, although the extent of his spiritual regeneration is a subject of much critical debate.

The madness of King Lear

Lear’s insanity is a dramatically powerful means of conveying the extent to which human beings can be degraded by the mistakes they make. His madness is in part caused by the cruel actions of Goneril and Regan and in part by his own errors, the outworking of old age and the self-obsession of power.
Yet even when mentally disturbed, Lear is able to understand his errors. He starts to recognise his failings and omissions as a ruler, lucidly stating that he has been careless about the hunger and homelessness of his poorer subjects. He recognises that he would have been a far better ruler if he had taken account of this when he wielded power. Yet like so much else, he had been unable to ‘see’ what should have been staring him in the face.
On the heath, Lear experiences empathy with ordinary people – perhaps for the first time, and is aware that this compassion requires a response:
      Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel,
That thou may’st shake the superflux to them,
And show the Heavens more just. (Act 3 Scene 4)     

Lear’s sense of guilt

At first King Lear blames himself for fathering such unnatural daughters as Goneril and Regan. Whilst on the stormy heath he sees that his suffering is: ‘Judicious punishment! ‘twas this flesh begot / Those pelican daughters.’ (Act 3 Scene 4). 
However, rather than understanding that his daughters’ characters may have been shaped by his own nurture, his apprehension of fatherly guilt seems to stem from an unhealthy attitude to sex. In Act 4 Scene 6 he associates female sexuality with the unbridled animal lusts of Greek mythology and the temptations of the devil:
      Down from the waist they are centaurs,
Though women all above:
But to the girdle do the gods inherit,
Beneath is all the fiend’s.      

His eyes open

Only gradually does Lear acquire some self-knowledge:
  • When Lear meets the blinded Gloucester, he acknowledges his limitations: ‘they told me I was everything; ‘tis a lie, I am not ague-proof.’ (Act 4 Scene 6)
  • He states the need for patience: ‘Thou must be patient,’ he says to Gloucester. ‘When we are born, we cry that we are come / To this great stage of fools.’
  • He has lost the arrogance which led to his earlier violent outbursts and the valuing of his daughters according to their ability to please him
  • When Lear learns of Cordelia’s loving loyalty, Kent reports that ‘burning shame’ drives him from her camp
  • In Cordelia’s presence he declares himself to be ‘a very foolish fond old man’ (Act 4 Scene 7). He admits that he has done her serious wrong and asks her to ‘forgive and forget’
  • As Lear and Cordelia are taken to prison (Act 5 Scene 3) he actually welcomes their incarceration as it will give him an opportunity to reconcile himself with her and to atone for the wrongs he has done her: ‘When thou dost ask me blessing, I’ll kneel down / And ask of thee forgiveness.’

Does Lear fully reform?

Shakespeare avoids any easy answers or resolutions as to how ‘good’ Lear becomes. Certainly the King learns from his mistakes but he remains flawed. Indeed, a dominant theme of the play is that the effects of serious mistakes cannot be undone. Huge suffering results from Lear’s impetuosity and lack of judgement:
  • Lear’s actions indirectly lead to Cordelia’s death – yet he does not express guilt when grieving
  • He may be glad to be imprisoned – but he does not consider the effect on the life of his young daughter.
Although the extent to which Lear ends the play a reformed character is open to debate, it seems clear that Lear remains a very human character – and that means being inconsistent. He undergoes enlightenment but he cannot relinquish his essential character.
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