King Lear Contents
- Shakespeare, William
- 1564 - 1582: William Shakespeare's Stratford Beginnings
- 1582 - 1592: William Shakespeare's Marriage, Parenthood and Early Occupation
- 1592 - 1594: William Shakespeare's Life In London, part 1
- 1594 - 1611: William Shakespeare's Life In London, part 2
- 1594 - 1611: William Shakespeare's Life In London, part 3
- 1611 - 1616: William Shakespeare - Back to Stratford
- Social / political background
- Religious / philosophical background
- The Theatre
- Act I
- Act II
- Act III
- Act IV
- Act V
Power and foolishness
The Earl of Gloucester is father to Edgar and Edmund. His deception by the illegitimate, villainous Edmund and his impetuous, gullible decision to disinherit the virtuous Edgar closely parallels the story of Lear and his daughters. Both are men of power and status who forfeit their position due to moral blindness and a poor assessment of character, though for each the suffering they undergo seems disproportionate to the errors they have committed.
Gloucester's superstitious belief in the influence of the stars and planets on human affairs leads him to attribute human difficulties to their action, rather than see difficulties as the outworking of human error and weakness. In Act 1 Scene 2 he lists treason, discord and the dissolution of natural family bonds as disasters that have been caused by recent eclipses. In sharp contrast, Edmund mocks his father's irrationality and credulousness. As far as Edmund is concerned, it is human beings themselves who are to blame - not the stars.
Edmund uses these superstitious beliefs against his father, telling him that Edgar mumbled wicked charms against him, 'conjuring the moon / To stand auspicious mistress.' (Act 1 Scene 2). He knows that such lies will capture Gloucester's attention because of what his father has said about 'these late eclipses in the sun and moon' in Act 1 Scene 2 - beliefs described by Edmund as 'foppery' (i.e. stupidity). Later, immediately after he is blinded, Gloucester accuses himself of committing 'follies'. Ironically he now 'sees' these with stark clarity, but only after undergoing the cruelty of losing his eyes.
Loyalty and persecution
In the same way that the honest loyalty of Cordelia and Kent leads to their being cast out by Lear, so Gloucester’s loyalty to the outcast, insane Lear gives Edmund an excuse to hand him over to the Duke of Cornwall as a traitor. Cornwall gouges out Gloucester’s eyes as punishment and Gloucester in turn is cast out into the wilderness.
He is not abandoned however. Just as Cordelia comes to her father’s aid, Edgar tends to his father, saving him from suicide in Act 4 Scene 6 and convincing him that it is better to endure suffering with patience rather than to seek to end one’s own life.
Like Lear, Gloucester carries the burden of much of his own suffering. He is blind to the truth of Edmund’s villainy and Edgar’s love and loyalty. In this way his actual blinding is preceded by a metaphorical blindness to what should have been obvious to someone less credulous and self-concerned.
Only after the truth of Edmund’s treachery is revealed to him do his eyes (metaphorically and ironically) open. He recognises his error with apt succinctness: ‘I stumbled when I saw’ (Act 4 Scene 1). However, it is too late. Once the error has been committed the effects cannot be undone – which is again a prominent theme in the play.
Gloucester and Lear meet
The fact that Gloucester is accompanied by a son feigning madness again strengthens the parallel with the mad king. When they meet on Dover beach each mad/blind old man recognises each other as a victim and their language is full of references to eyes and to seeing in both the physical and the metaphorical sense. As Lear says, ‘A man may see how this world goes with no eyes’ (Act 4 Scene 6). Blindness and madness are no barriers to the acquisition of greater insight into the human condition than either man had when he enjoyed power and security.
’Twixt two extremes of passion
Gloucester’s death also parallels Lear’s. When he learns Edgar’s true identity, Gloucester dies: ‘his flaw’d heart … / ’Twixt two extremes of passion, joy and grief, / Burst smilingly.’ (Act 5 Scene 3) The audience witnesses the same extremes in Lear’s own death.
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