Commentary

As was his habit, Shakespeare altered his sources considerably when he wrote King Lear, and his most important alteration changed the nature of the story entirely. In the many versions of the tale that preceded Shakespeare's, Lear does not go mad, but recovers his throne and leaves it to Cordelia. The old story is essentially reassuring: one may make a catastrophic mistake and still survive to live a peaceful and happy life.  Shakespeare plainly felt that life makes more strenuous demands than a happy ending can illustrate, and at the core of his story is human failing. Gloucester's blindness is foreshadowed in his lack of judgment about Edgar, and Lear's madness by his egotistical demand for total love. These failings are seen in conjunction with the unscrupulous ambition for power represented by Edmund, Cornwall, Goneril, and Regan, and we are repelled by crimes within families, violations of the most basic human solidarity. Our horror is compounded by the vivid depiction of villainy triumphant, which is only slightly lessened by the villains' deaths, as these are more than matched by those of Gloucester, Lear, and Cordelia. Edmund's remorse at the play's close does little to compensate for his evil, and Regan and Goneril display no final repentance at all. Our pity for Lear and Gloucester is increased by the knowledge that they brought their sufferings on themselves. 

The enormity of the tragedy is unmistakable, and the play leaves us with a troubling question: How can we reconcile human dignity with human failure in the face of life's demands? This is finally unresolvable; however, several possible ways of addressing the question emerge through Shakespeare's rich presentation of human tragedy. 

Perhaps most striking is the play's obvious religious interpretation, emphasized by numerous allusions to religious matters. These range from the trivialóas in the many mentions of pagan godsóto serious remarks such as Edgar's 'The Gods are just, and of our pleasant vices / Make instruments to plague us' (5.3.169-170). Also, numerous references to the end of the world are made, most strikingly in the cries of Kent, Edgar, and Albany at the horror of Cordelia's death, in 5.3.262-263. Most significantly, Cordelia, who suffers through no fault other own and accepts her fate with uncomplaining fortitude and undiminished love, is often seen as a personification of the Christian virtues of self-sacrifice and acceptance of God's will. In fact, many commentators have found her to be a Christlike figure whose death symbolizes Christ's crucifixion. This offers a positive interpretation of the play's fatal close: the tragedy is a manifestation of God's will, a reminder of the coming redemption of humanity through Christianity. On the other hand, a non-Christian interpretation of Cordelia's sacrifice is also compelling. She lacks the Christian's reward in the afterlife because she is a pagan, thus her virtue is its own reward. Her conduct is therefore all the more stirring, and our admiration of her heroic courage is increased.  

The sufferings of Lear and Gloucester, which they have brought upon themselves, may be compared to punishment for sins by God. They recognize that they are at fault and are then reconciled with their children, and this development suggests God's forgiveness for those who are contrite. Their forgiveness is accompanied by death, and this points up the doctrinal importance of the Christian afterlife and its eternal mercy.  However, this promise is lacking in Lear's pagan world and, as with Cordelia, a non-religious interpretation could be that Lear's endurance is heroic in itself, and his triumph lies in his recognition and acceptance of his failings before he dies. Most commentators agree, in any case, that the suffering of the characters in Lear is finally redemptive, for it is heroic, it leads to heightened consciousness in Lear and Gloucester, and it provides the example of Edgar and Cordelia's undiminished loyalty and love. Also, many commentators hold that Shakespeare intended Lear to die believing that Cordelia is alive, as his last words indicate, which implies a happy resolution in death akin to that of Gloucester, whose heart 'burst smilingly' (5.3.198). 

Another positive conclusion can be drawn from the tragedy. Politics are as important in King Lear as religion. In fact, in Shakespeare's time, the references to the end of the world carried a political implication, for people commonly believed that the world's end was more or less imminent, and that one of the symptoms of approaching apocalypse would be a collapse of social structures, including political bonds. Much reassurance was found in the peaceful ascension of King James Iócivil war was feared at the timeówith its promise for the unification of England and Scotland. The threat of civil war, several times alluded to in Lear, raises a point that was important to Shakespeare, and which dominates the History Plays, the belief that personal immorality in the ruling class is a disease that spreads evil throughout society, in extreme cases causing it to fall apart. Though Lear, Gloucester, and Cordelia do not live to appreciate it, Britain at large is rescued from the evil that has overrun the highest reaches of its society; civil war in Britain is avoided, and the French invasion caused by Lear's lack of judgment is defeated by Albany. The play is thus supportive of civil authority; the catastrophe of Lear's reign might be compared, by the 17th-century playgoer, with the strength and harmony expected from that of James. It is worth noting that in 1606 Lear was performed at James' court on a very festive occasion, the day following Christmas. 

Another point addressed in King Lear is that a sovereign is responsible for his subjects. Raving madly in the storm, Lear realises that he had been unaware of hunger and homelessness when he was king, and he sees that his present experience could have been valuable to him as a ruler. He says to himself: 'Take physic, Pomp; / Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel, /That thou mayst shake the superflux to them, / And show the Heavens more just' (3.4.33-36). Lear recognizes that his errors are more important than others' because he is a king. 

A more particular social question is also addressed in King Lear. In Shakespeare's day, the newly prosperous gentry and the commercially active bourgeoisie were rising in prosperity and power, largely at the expense of the old aristocracy. This conflict is plainly the cause of the extraordinary venom displayed by Kent towards Oswald in 2.2. Oswald is a caricature of a 17th-century social climber, as Kent's accusation, phrased largely in terms of social status, makes clear. Edmund also represents the new classes, with his lack of chivalric scruples and his concern for his own advancement. In his first soliloquy Edmund identifies himself with a typical modern rejection of tradition by declaring, Thou, Nature, art my goddess' (1.2.1), a reference to the Renaissance rediscovery of classical paganism and the sophisticated agnosticism that was thought to accompany it. In placing these sentiments in the mouth of a self-declared villain, Shakespeare stresses his alliance with the old world of the aristocracy, just as he does in ridiculing Oswald through Kent. 

However, though King Lear may lend itself to numerous interpretations, Christian or humanistic, political or moral, our response to the play is largely governed by its conclusion. Act 5 brings no relief for our anguish, despite the expectations raised by the reunion of Lear and Cordelia. The finality of death may suggest that the play reflects a morbidly depressed response to life on Shakespeare's part (without denying that other plays express other responses). Such a viewpoint has led some to compare Lear to the Book of Job and see the play as an explication of the power of fate, or God. However, both Edgar and Albany survive to carry on, conscious of the fragility of happiness and on guard against the errors of Lear and Gloucester, for as Edgar (Albany, in some editions) says, 'The weight of this sad time we must obey' (5.3. 322). 

The extraordinary woe that is at the heart of King Lear can make it a harrowing experience for audiences. Shakespeare maintains this atmosphere of wretched despair through a variety of subtle effects. Most striking perhaps is the repeated depiction of pain and disease, capped by Lear's madness and Gloucester's blinding, but also represented by Edmund's selfmutilation in 2.1, Edgar's feigned lunacy, and Lear's convulsion of the throat known as 'Hysteria passio (2.4.55), among other instances. Further, painful metaphors of torment and sickness are extensively used. For instance, the Fool compares the rejected Lear to a bird that 'had it[s] head bit off (1.4.214); Edgar speaks vividly of self-mutilation, in 2.3.14-16; and Lear speaks of his daughters' rejection as a 'mouth . . . tear[ing a] hand' (3.4.15). In a famous image, Gloucester compares humanity's relationship to the gods with that of 'flies to wanton boys . . . They kill us for their sport' (4.1.36-37). 

Another aspect of the theme of disease is the play's morbid attitude towards sex. In King Lear sexual love is seen as evil and is only presented in the monstrous rivalry of Regan and Goneril for Edmund. It is also seen as the source of other evils. The misdeeds of Lear's daughters are firmly connected by Lear to the sexual acts from which they were conceived, and Edgar points out that Edmund was the product of illicit sex. Also, in his disguise as Tom O'Bedlam, Edgar declares that intercourse, 'the act of darkness' (3.4.85), is responsible for his painful madness. Lear goes so far as to condemn human procreation, demanding that the gods 'Crack Nature's moulds, all germens spill at once / That makes ingrateful man!' (3.2.8-9). In the extreme, the raving Lear links female sexual anatomy with evil, saying, 'there's hell, there's darkness, / There is the sulphurous pitóburning, scalding, / Stench, consumption; fie, fie, fie!' (4.6. 126-128). This incrimination of a natural drive is an indication of the troubled world in King Lear and of the disturbed minds of its inhabitants. Happiness is only offered in the isolated and asexual world of the reunited but imprisoned Lear and Cordelia, where all other human contact is willingly forsworn; the exhausted king declares that 'Upon such sacrifices . .. /The Gods themselves throw incense' (5.3.20-21). The play's treatment of psychological distortion is well served by its disjointed and varying tone. This is largely provided by its complex subplot, whose differing elements include Gloucester's blinding, Edgar's exile as mad Tom, and Regan and Goneril's sexual rivalry. The intercutting of these developments with Lear's story was once much criticised; early 19th-century commentators such as Charles Lamb declared that Lear was a bad play in theatrical terms, while acknowledging its power as poetry. This was long a traditionally accepted idea, influencing 20th-century critics to elaborately consider the plot's 'failings', despite the play's unquestionable success with modern audiences. 

The sub-plot actually anchors the play's dramatic structure. The wanderings of Edgar and Gloucester are presented in sequential incidents, as are the machinations of Edmund and the cruel sisters. Together, they provide a well-defined structure that the main plotóLear's foolish choice and subsequent isolationódoes not offer. Indeed, the principal action can hardly be called a plot at all; it is simply a progression, taking the central character from vanity and folly through deepening madness to a recovered consciousness and ultimate collapse. As we watch this progression, we do not think about the next step in the plot so much as we simply observe Lear's personal qualities and contemplate their evolution. The events of Lear's progress are less important and are not presented in a structured way, unlike, for example, in Julius Caesar, but are indicated by discrete and almost unconnected subsidiary developments. The play also offers disconcerting suggestions of comedy that complicate our response and thus increase its emotional power. In King Lear Shakespeare employed a number of elements traditionally associated with comedy: a double plot; the use of a jester to comment on the action; the use of disguise; the progression of the action from royal court to country and back to court; and the counterpoint of youth and age. Moreover, Kent's ridicule of Oswald, a number of Edgar's remarks as Tom O'Bedlam, and the Fool's routines are all quite funny. These elements suggest the potential for a different sort of story altogether, not a simple tale of evil triumphant. 

King Lear is complex also in its repeated emotional polarities. We are presented with oppositions of weeping and laughing, silence and speech, honesty and guile, madness and intelligence, delusion and clear sightedness, love and hate. Cordelia's frankness and spirituality is contrasted with the deceit and lasciviousness of her sisters; Kent's moral firmness with Oswald's self-serving oiliness and his strength with Lear's weakness; the merciful Albany with the cruel Cornwall. Individual characters present contrasts, as well, though the playwright is careful to motivate each change so as not to dilute a character's strength as a representative figure. Kent, for instance, announces that he will 'other accents borrow / That can my speech defuse' (1.4.1-2), and he adopts a plain spoken prose and only reverts to verse when he cannot be heard by Lear or when he expresses his love and concern for his demented master, as in 3.2.42-49, Go 67. Edgar similarly effects prose as Tom O'Bedlam but speaks poetry as himself, and the hypocritical sisters use verse to Hatter their father and prose to plot against him. Lear's great range of characters stimulates our strong awareness of the play as a philosophical statement about the human condition.

 

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