Identity through relationship and status

At the start of King Lear identity is established by family and social relationships:
  • Edmund is Gloucester’s acknowledged ‘whoreson’
  • Albany and Cornwall are identified as Lear’s ‘son[s]’
  • Goneril and Regan are his ‘daughters’ made of the ‘self metal’
  • Kent is Gloucester’s ‘honourable friend’
  • Kent identifies his existence as a ‘pawn’ which he is willing to sacrifice in the defence of his monarch.
Lear starts to erode the sense of identity through connection when he begins to treat Cordelia as a commodity, whose ‘price has fallen’, rather than a daughter. She becomes in his eyes of ‘little seeming substance’ once he decides that she will no longer be bolstered by the wealth of inheritance. 
His attitude to the newly ‘stranger’d’ Cordelia illustrates Lear’s reliance on status to define identity, rather than understanding that people are shaped by their inner life or heart. As his elder daughters point out, the King ‘hath ever but slenderly known himself’. The rest of the play is about Lear’s journey to understanding what it means to be a person.

The outsider

As a bastard, Edmund stands outside the conventional network of identity, and proclaims himself to have allegiance to no-one other than himself. By ousting his brother he imposes on Edgar the same necessity to thrive alone as he has endured. Cut off from his previous social identity, Edgar decides that the safest role he can take is ‘the basest and most poorest shape’ as a social ‘nobody’ (‘Edgar I nothing am.’). 
Kent too has ‘raz’d his likeness’ having been banished by the King. He has no pretentions to status and when, as Gaius, he seeks to serve Lear, he describes himself simply as ‘A man’ who professes ‘to be no less than I seem’. Kent understands, as Lear does not, the biblical teaching that human worth depends on being ‘a very honest-hearted fellow’, not on social position. That is one of the reasons he so takes against the ‘smiling rogue’ Oswald, as someone merely ‘made’ by ‘a tailor’.

Lear’s confusion

It is ironic that, as someone who treats people according to their status, Lear cannot understand that his diminished power means that he himself will be treated differently. His gradual loss of authority means he becomes to Goneril merely an ‘idle old man’ and to her servants simply ‘My Lady’s father.’ When his daughter turns on him, he asks with heavy irony:
      Does any here know me? This is not Lear:
Does Lear walk thus? speak thus? Where are his eyes? ..
Who is it that can tell me who I am?        (Act 1 Scene 4)    
Yet he is bewildered when this has no effect – in the words of the Fool, he has merely become ‘Lear’s shadow.’
As his elder daughters strip him of more and more power, Lear starts pathetically to see himself as simply a ‘a poor old man / As full of grief as age’.  But he still believes that he can contend with the elements and bid the wind (Act 3 Scene 1). 

The bare essentials

It is only once Lear has faced the extremity of the elements which ‘would not peace at my bidding’ and encountered the abject Poor Tom, that he starts to analyse what it is to be a human being. Confronted with the near-naked outcast, Lear’s enquiry, ‘Is man no more than this? Consider him well.’ echoes the spirit of Psalm 8 which would have been well known to Shakespeare’s contemporary audience:                                      
      When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers .. 
what is mankind that you are mindful of them,
human beings that you care for them? Psalms 8:3-4    
In Tom, Lear sees:
      the thing itself: unaccommodated man is no more but such a poor, bare, forked animal     
With rejected or rejecting daughters, loss of kingdom and retinue, Lear can no longer consider himself a father, king or master of others. As he tries to identify with Tom by stripping off his own clothes, he anticipates his later observation that humans enter the world as crying, naked babies, for whom status is irrelevant. Humans are just ‘natural fool[s] of Fortune’. 


Yet it is when Lear has come to this point that his innate majesty starts to be seen again. The blinded Gloucester recognises him as King and later the gentlemen sent by Cordelia assert, ’You are a royal one and we obey you.’ It is perhaps because Lear has come to accept the reality, that he is simply ‘a very foolish fond old man, / Fourscore and upward’ (Act 4 Scene 7) that we can believe again in his nobility. When Cordelia asks, ‘Sir, do you know me?’ Lear is (gradually) able to wake up to the truth of Cordelia’s nature – that she is not ‘untender’ but ‘true’.
Meanwhile, the true identity of others is uncovered. The masked champion who vanquishes usurping Edmund is revealed to be Edgar, now the rightful Earl of Gloucester. Regan’s complicity with Edmund is uncovered and serves to reveal Goneril’s latent desire to get rid of her husband for the sake of her beloved. Kent’s innate loyalty has always been apparent, so it is not a huge surprise when Gaius and Kent are revealed to be one and the same man. Albany at last recognises Edmund, his wife and sister-in-law for the traitors they are.
The Book of Common PrayerSo, at the end of King Lear, many are identified for who they have truly proved themselves to be – ‘right noble’ or ‘toad-spotted traitor[s]’. But the most plaintive message of the play is seen in the inert Cordelia, who is ‘dead as earth’. This recalls the image from the Book of Common Prayer’s burial service:
      ‘earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust’    
that human life is brief (Psalms 103:14-16) and, once it is over, humans return to the organic elements from which they are composed (Genesis 3:19, see Earth, clay, dust). The overwhelming evidence about identity in King Lear is that humans are simply mortal.
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