Order, disintegration and chaos

Universal downfall

King Lear charts the downfall of a man, a family and a nation into chaos. Pomp, hierarchy and state are turned topsy-turvy when the King inhabits a hovel, children rule parents, guests attack their host and Lear’s retinue comprises blind, ‘mad’ and mutilated beggars. ‘Good’ characters are defeated by evil ones and justice appears as illusory as Lear’s mad trial in Act 3. And unlike most tragedies, in which a sense of new order and confidence is asserted at the end, in King Lear there is little such assurance that the British realm can be restored to its former glory.
The disintegration is initiated by Lear himself in Act 1 Scene 1, when he seeks to divide ‘In three’ his kingdom and ‘part’ his ‘coronet’. Gloucester sums up the opening events of the play with the negative terms ‘banished’ and ‘parted’. However, there appear to be larger social and cosmic forces at work, as Gloucester reports in Act 1 Scene 2:
      Love cools, friendship falls off, brothers divide: in cities, mutinies; in countries, discord; in palaces, treason; and the bond crack’d ’twixt son and father.     

A reflection of the times

In Act 1 Scene 2 Gloucester concludes ominously:
      We have seen the best of our time: machinations, hollowness, treachery, and all ruinous disorders follow us disquietly to our graves.     
Shakespeare’s contemporary audience may well have felt that the earl’s sentiments reflected their own situation. After the stability of Elizabeth I's long reign, the English suddenly had a new, foreign king, who vastly inflated the ranks of the aristocracy as a way of buying favour and acquiring cash. 
Alongside the fluctuating power structures as these new faces jostled for influence at court, there was economic uncertainty. This was generated by factors such as the plague epidemics of 1603-4, the decay of the wool industry on which many relied for sustenance and increasing land enclosure which dispossessed peasant labourers. At the turn of the century approximately 30% of the urban population were of ‘no fixed abode’, whilst 30% of the rural population had to resort to begging in lean periods of the year. 
Meanwhile there were also religious and social tensions, some of which came to a head in the year of Lear’s production in the Gunpowder Plot.

Mental and physical disintegration

It is made clear from the start that Lear is mentally fragile and ‘full of changes’, his elder daughters referring to his ‘inconstant starts’ and ‘unruly waywardness’. In Act 2 Scene 4, as the ‘mother swells up’, he loses control and explodes in violent anger, calling for ‘Vengeance! Plague! Death! Confusion!’ He is aware of his increasing loss of faculties and is desperate to retain control, yet ends the confrontation with his daughters in tears, issuing hollow threats like a child. Shakespeare uses the ‘unquiet’ weather as a symbolic reflection of the growing ‘tempest’ in Lear’s mind.
The King is accompanied on the heath by the Fool, who dresses his wisdom in doggerel (a means of ensuring safety in a world where truth-telling is punishable), and Poor Tom, who rants about attack by the ‘foul fiend’. The disguised Edgar epitomises the social outcast that an uncaring hierarchy wants to ignore. Covered in ‘filth’ and ‘whipped from tithing to tithing’, he is now a ‘poor bare forked animal’. His nakedness inspires Lear to remove his own remaining trappings of civilisation, as his mind and language wander into disjointed sounds and images. The image of being ‘bound upon a wheel of fire’ weeping tears that ‘burn like lead’ conveys a final descent into the abyss of hell, with which this imagery is associated. See Hell.    

Relationship breakdown

Lear makes the first move in unravelling his family by his expulsion of Cordelia from his heart and household. His curse on Goneril as a ‘degenerate bastard’ (Act 1 Scene 4) also overturns the natural cycle of birth, life and death as he dries ‘up in her the organs of increase.’ In their turn, Goneril, Regan and Edmund all violate the established bonds of respect for elders as well as overturning the idea of inheritance succession – Edmund works towards his father’s downfall so as to inherit his revenues before the appropriate time. Regan openly tells her father that he is old and should be ‘rul’d’ by his offspring, making literal the exercise of authority which Lear had no forethought about giving away. 
Places of sanctuary are violated. Initially this is again the fault of the King, whose ‘knights grow riotous’ in Goneril’s house. In response, Regan first deserts her own home so as to avoid hosting her father, then ‘shut[s] up [the] doors’ of her host against Lear, overturning every law of hospitality - to a family member, to an elderly person, in the face of inclement weather. In that same house, the owner, Gloucester, is attacked. Edgar is chased from his home and even his hovel is not secure from intrusion. Cordelia is captured and her place of security, the prison cell, is the site of her murder.

Social chaos

Bonds of trust and loyalty break down throughout the whole fabric of society. When the King’s emissary is treated with contempt by a servant, his master condones the affront. A son betrays his father to torture; two wives look beyond their own marriage beds for sexual adventure. Oswald and Edmund serve whoever facilitates their own interests. In Act 3 Scene 2 the Fool uses other images of social disorder, referring to nobles who are servants to artisans and churches being built by the immoral, signs that ‘the realm of Albion’ has ‘Come to great confusion.’ Because of corruption in high places, the system of justice falls apart – who can tell any more ‘which is the justice, which is the thief’.

Elemental confusion

All this happens against a background of elemental disorder. In Act 3 Scene 2 Kent refers to ‘sheets of fire,’ ‘bursts of horrid thunder,’ ‘groans of roaring wind and rain’ never before experienced. Shakespeare’s contemporary audience would recognise the allusion to the biblical idea of the Creation groaning and frustrated by the effects of sin (Romans 8:19-22). Both sun and moon have recently experienced eclipse, and Lear reflects the upheaval of the natural process when he implores the ‘all shaking thunder’ to:
      Strike flat the thick rotundity o’th’world
Crack Nature’s moulds, all germens spill at once     


With Edgar’s ‘rescue’ of Gloucester and the advent of Cordelia, it could be argued that the chaos is tamed, just as the storm also wears itself out. Certainly Lear is re-clothed and becomes more aware of his situation than he was in the depths of his madness. Furthermore, the forces of the French King arrive, representing law and order, fighting for the restitution of Lear’s throne and powers. The re-introduction of justice and hierarchy is symbolised by the ceremonial surrounding Edgar’s chivalric challenge to Edmund – a challenge which Edgar wins. However, it is too little, too late. The French forces are defeated by those of Goneril and Cornwall, Lear’s mind has deteriorated too much for him to take power again, and Cordelia, the agent of harmony and grace, is murdered.
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