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The hand of Fate factors greatly in shaping the fortunes of every literary character. The role of providence is constantly in flux, fate does not necessarily play an active role in controlling a character s destiny. There are extremes of such aid, as seen in the Goddess Athena s continued protection over Odysseus and his loved ones in Homer s The Odyssey. Although without the physical presence of any Gods, Divine Justice plays a prominent role in Shakespeare s King Lear. Ironically, some beneficial changes stem from the afflictions. Furthermore, with the death of nearly every major character, why do the innocent die with the guilty? Some perceptions of innocence are inappropriate.
Each punishment afflicted upon a character is appropriate Lear with his madness, Gloucester and his blindness, are just a few of such examples. No one character is clearly without fault, there exists an underlying web of transgression between characters. As seen within the dysfunctional families of Lear and Gloucester Treachery abounds. But, as the old saying goes What goes around, comes around .
This play begins late into the lives of the characters. A mature Lear, about to retire is to relinquish his power and authority to his daughters Goneril, Regan and Cordelia. Their respective dowries are to reflect their amount of love for him, Which of you shall we say doth love us most, / That we our largest bounty may extend (1 1 53-54). The phrasing of this question invites flattery, and his two wicked daughters, Goneril and Regan, seize this opportunity. They die as a result of their treachery against each other over the same man , in Edmund s words, Yet Edmund was beloved: / The one that poisoned for my sake, / And after slew herself (5 3 241-243). Just as they had strived to usurp the power of their father, it is appropriate that they die competing over the affection of one man. Since they felt no remorse for their father and completely
Lear s youngest and favorite daughter Cordelia, surprisingly answers that she loves him just enough , Unhappy that I am, I cannot heave/ My heart into my mouth. I love you Majesty / According to my bond, no more, no less (1 1 94-95). Cordelia s words contain more meaning in their simplicity than the supposed hollow love of Goneril and Regan. Since she truly loves him, what reason is there for her to say it? If she were in fact his favorite, then no great speech would be necessary, this is her downfall…her overconfidence is her downfall. Not seeing the wisdom of her words, Lear s terrible anger causes him to disown Cordelia. His pride and arrogance do not allow him to see through hollow words.
With the exception that Cordelia is Lear s favorite daughter, the familial relationships between Lear and his daughters remain unclear up to this point. The reader is neither unaware of his past actions as a ruler nor his capacity as a father, specifically in the upbringing of his children. Had Lear mistreated Goneril and Regan in the past, had he been nurturing Cordelia, his clear favorite, so much more than the others? There is no question of the intentions of his two evil daughters. Since there is no information of their collective pasts, or any mention of any Queen Lear , one can only infer that their ambitions stem from the aforementioned uneven distribution of fatherly love . If Goneril and Regan believe that flattery is their only way to please Lear, than there is no real love shared between them. In this one senseless act, Lear loses his only true and loving daughter, leaving his entire kingdom, his authority, his psyche and his health in the hands of two vengeful daughters.
Lear s onset of madness results from his loss of power to his daughters. Without his crown, his entourage, or his authority, Lear loses everything that had defined him. Lear is left with nothing, he is left to fend for himself, since Cordelia does not return for a while. the only ones who could take care of him in his infirmity. Without any of his past luxuries, Lear continues to spiral into madness, with two madmen (the Fool and Ol Tom) as his voices of reason. Is Lear deserving of his fate?
Lear s madness acts as a catalyst for a change in his character. Without his royal trappings, Lear finally understands the frailties of the common man. Standing upon a heath in the midst of a terrible storm, Lear loses his earlier uncaring facade, Poor naked wretches, wheresoe er you are, / That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm / O, I have ta en / Too little care of this! (3 4 28-33). Without madness, he would not have undergone this transformation.
Although Lear loses everything, he regains his daughter Cordelia in the end. Her return, with her forces from France, brings everything to a close. She left as Lear s dishonored but returns as his savior. Though only for a short amount of time before she too dies, he realizes the magnitude of her love for him it never changed, despite his earlier dishonorable actions.
Lear realizes only as he begins to go mad that Cordelia loves him and that Regan and Goneril are flatterers. Furthermore he comes to understand the weakness of human nature, the emptiness of royal claims to power, and the similarity of all human beings as he rambles in his insanity. Without the illusions of reality to cloud his mind, Lear realizes the natural state. Simply, we are all the same under different clothes. In essence, we are all the same in the end ashes.
The two characters who suffer the most in the play are King Lear and Gloucester. Their stories are similar in many ways, however while Lear goes mad, Gloucester is blinded. Unlike Lear, Gloucester is able to retain his sanity. Shakespeare uses these two characters to parallel between the two conditions. Although the conditions are meant to cloud perceptions, both Lear and Gloucester recognize certain things more clearly after they lose their sight or sanity.
Within the Gloucester family, the lives of two brothers are shaped by society s views. Edmund and Edgar, are born into nobility but separated by the status of their mothers. Edmund, the bastard-son, feels slighted by society. He first lies to Gloucester about Edgar in the form of a forged letter. Ultimately, Edmund betrays Gloucester himself in order to obtain the lands and titles which were meant for Edgar.
Edmund feels both land and title are due to him, but most of all, he wants respect, Legitimate Edgar, I must have your land. / Our father s love is to the bastard Edmund / As to th legitimate. Fine word, legitimate. (1 2 16-18). The scope of Edmund s plans expands as he too becomes romantically entangled between Goneril and Regan. In the end, Edmund had planned to rule all of Britain but is cut down by Edgar in a decisive battle between the two siblings.
Edgar, the legitimate, never felt the slights visited upon Edmund. He plays an unwitting pawn in Edmund s plan to gain power. Without questioning anything, he takes every word from his brother as the absolute truth, and as a fugitive from his father takes on the countenance and mannerisms of a Bedlam madman to avoid capture. As the Tom character, Edgar leads both Lear and his father Gloucester around the countryside. As a sane man masquerading as a lunatic, Edgar becomes the Voice of Reason for Lear, and foils Gloucester s suicide attempt. He is the only innocent of this play.
Gloucester comes to understand which son is really good and which is bad at the very moment of his blinding. Still, both Lear and Gloucester sink into despair before their deaths. Even in their last moments irony exists – Lear’s eyesight fails in the moments just before he dies, similarly Gloucester wishes himself insane so he could more easily bear his misery.
In the final scene the tragedies of this play come full circle and closure is attempted: Edgar duels with and kills Edmund for tricking Gloucester, causing adultery between Goneril and Regan, and framing him. Gloucester dies for his earlier mistreating of his bastard-son; Goneril kills her sister Regan out of jealousy, and then commits suicide when she is revealed to Albany for their mistreatment of Lear and their adultery with Edmund; Edmund’s betrayal of Cordelia leads to her death; and Lear finally dies both insane and grieving over the death of innocent Cordelia. The only people left to rule Britain are Edgar, Albany and Lear s servant Kent.
Nearly every major character dies at the end of this tragedy. Did everyone deserve it? In a perfect world, Cordelia and Edgar would both be alive to bring closure to the tragedy. However, with Cordelia s death, there is a complete end to Lear s line. Since she too was too haughty to express her love for him, she too may have deserved to die. If she had only said something in response to Lear s questions, the entire course of this play would be drastically different. But, since Edgar was wronged he is innocent, possibly the only true innocent in this entire play.
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