“Shakespeare’s vision of the world is essentially pessimistic”
Is this true? Ultimately does the play exhibit a lack of confidence in hopeful outcomes? Does evil prevail over good? And what position does the play adopt with regard to cosmic justice?
God/Gods/Divine & Cosmic Justice
We often hear characters hopefully appealing for God’s/the Gods’ protection & support but this is juxtaposed with the defeat of these hopes & bleakly negative outcomes. For example, in the final scene, Albany cries out “the Gods defend her” – then Lear comes in with the dead Cordelia in his arms i.e. the Gods fail to answer their pleas/prayers. So this is an essentially pessimistic outlook alright.
Gloucester has no such faith in divine intervention to protect the virtuous, instead evoking cruel Gods who delight in human suffering and reward people who are corrupt. He bleakly observes: “As flies to wanton boys are we to the Gods, they kill us for their sport”. He feels there is no divine justice, but at this point it is no wonder that he gives way to despair – he’s had his eyes plucked out and is suffering the loss of his beloved child Edgar. Interestingly, by the end of the play, he has changed his view and prays to the ever gentle Gods… so the person who had the least faith at the beginning of the play has the most at the end. Confusing.com
Other characters, such as Edgar, believe that the Gods reward good and punish evil: “the Gods are just, and of our pleasant vices make instruments to plague us” “think that the clearest Gods … have preserved thee”
Suffering in the play:
Another way to think about the level of pessimism Shakespeare’s play exhibits is to consider the extent and extremity of the suffering and pain the characters endure (lots of pain; lots of suffering!) and to ask whether or not this suffering is completely out of proportion to their flaws and failings (abso-bloody-loutely-yes!). Life is so awful for Lear that Kent sees death as a blessed release for him: “He hates him, that would upon the rack of this tough world stretch him out longer”
However, it’s important to remember that whilst their suffering is extreme, Shakespeare frequently and repeatedly points to the redemptive effects that stem from these experiences of suffering – compassion, pity and consideration for others. Through their suffering, Lear and Gloucester become better men!
So while his vision of the world is frequently pessimistic, it is not exclusively or unrelentlingly so.
What about the question of whether or not good conquers evil?
Good v’s Evil
Does the decency and selflessness of characters such as Cordelia and Cornwall’s servant (who tries to prevent them from plucking out G’s eyes) outweigh the horrific inhumanity of characters such as Edmund and Goneril?
Can we argue that all efforts to be GOOD ultimately fail?
eg Edmund tries to save Cordelia but fails
eg Lear decides to help the poor but it is too late, he is no longer powerful
Clearly, we can. And it has to be said that the concluding scene is hideously grim as Kent declares “All’s cheerless, dark and deadly”
Nonetheless, evil is defeated – it is shown to be self-destructive (Edmund, Goneril, Regan) and Edgar and Albany remain to restore social and moral order in the future.
So what can we conclude about Shakespeare’s vision? Well, ultimately this is a tragedy. The final lesson Lear learns is ultimate grief. He reaches a nadir of absolute nothingness, complete and total despair. Nothing can dislodge the haunting image of a distraught father holding the lifeless body of his daughter from our minds.
Theme of blindness:
Lear is emotionally blind: he cannot see Cordelia’s true love for him & banishes her.
Through his madness he gets perfect vision, realises Goneril and Regan’s wickedness and Cordelia’s loyalty but it is too late. Lear’s blindness ends up costing Cordelia her life and consequently Lear’s own.
Gloucester exhibits a less wilful blindness: after all, he was tricked. He was too willing to believe Edmund without even speaking to Edgar – he behaved rashly and jumped to conclusions.
As Gloucester’s eyes are plucked out, he learns to see. It is not until he loses his physical sight that he realises how blind he has been to the truth. Although blind, by the end of the play he has achieved a clearer vision of the world.
Ultimately “Eyes aren’t the source of sight in the play, it is knowledge that leads to sight and further insight in the play” (I’m not sure where this quote comes from and google ain’t telling me – perhaps those wonderful notes Patrick Murray used to write on each of the Shakespearean plays)
Who else is blind?
Albany to a certain extent, is blinded by his love for Goneril. It takes him quite a while to see her for what she really is. Her unfaithfulness, discovered in a love letter to Edmund where they plot to kill Albany, makes him stand up against her authority.
There’s a gradual dawning realisation that those who see don’t necessarily see things clearly. And somehow this is seen as a general reflection of the state of the nation and the corruption inherent in this society. As Gloucester wryly observes “Tis the times plague when madmen lead the blind”.
Nonetheless, the more BLIND Glouester becomes physically, the less blind he becomes emotionally and psychologically – initially he’s betrayed by Edmund. He’s a poor judge of character. He sees people not for their inner qualities but for their outward show. But he embarks on a journey into self-knowledge.
Lear is the same. He’s blind to the truth at the beginning. He demands obedience and immediate gratification from everyone. He’s rash, he doesn’t like people questioning him and going against his wishes. But like Gloucester, he embarks on a journey into self-knowledge.
Traumatised, both endure great hardship. As a result, both become better people. They have grown morally, and recognise their failings and mistakes. Ultimately they become patient and compassionate human beings.
Transformative power of suffering:
Can suffering make us better people? This is one of the central questions Shakespeare tries to answer in this play. So what’s Lear like at the beginning?
He’s King- he has absolute power and authority. He’s been flattered and obeyed all his life. People told him what he wanted to hear. He has no true concept of how to judge a person’s love for him – he must learn that “actions speak louder than words” but he doesn’t understand this at the beginning. He’s arrogant, intolerant, rash and unreasonable.
Lear is easily insulted and used to getting his own way. Anyone who goes against him becomes a victim of his violent rage, curses and threats and his cruel, unjust punishments – for example he disinherits Cordelia. His immaturity is profoundly evident – he measures love by grand speeches not kind acts.
“Come not between the dragon and his wrath”
Ironically, as he has given away his kingdom, he still measures his own value by looking at the number of followers in his retinue, and by what he owns and possesses.
His punishment of Goneril is out of all proportion to her crime – he curses her with infertility, a big deal for a woman who has a kingdom to pass on to her heirs!
ONCE HE GOES OUT INTO THE STORM – he goes mad, loses his sanity – this change from respected King to beggar is too much for him to bear. Through his suffering and experience, the major changes occur.
He learns not to judge people by what they possess, because he himself has been stripped of everything. He realises that everyone sins, that he himself has made mistakes but he still feels he didn’t deserve the treatment he got from his daughters.
When he sees that the fool is cold, this is a significant turning point: he now notices the needs of others “Poor fool and knave, I have one part in my heart that’s sorry yet for thee” act 3 scene 2.
Similarly, when he meets Poor Tom/Edgar he feels sorry for him. The reality of what man is without possessions and flattery is shown to him “Is man no more than this?” and he is shocked! He is turning away from focusing on his own needs, and finally realising the needs of others, of the basest beggar…he realises that as King he had a unique opportunity to ease their suffering but failed to do so “I have ta’en too little care of this!” He now cares about his subjects “Poor naked wretches…that bide the pelting of this pitiless storm” – but sadly, it’s too late.
By the end of the storm, wild and mad, yet wiser than he has ever been before, he realises how prone to flattery and lies he once was: “they are not men of their words. They told me I was everything, tis a lie”
The extent of the change in his outlook and personality is most evident in that fact that he is able to accept defeat and the humiliation of imprisonment with a positive joy. His priorities are now straight – he wants to spend time with his beloved daughter and beg for her forgiveness “we two alone will sing like birds i’ the cage and ask of thee forgiveness”
He now knows who to trust and how to love and from this is able to acknowledge his own errors – “I am old and foolish”.
Sadly this change comes too late, which elevates Lear to the status of tragic hero and which deepens the pervasive sense of tragedy which permeates the final moments of the play.
Theme of family:
The play revolves around the destruction of Lear and Gloucester’s families.
Both banish loyal children and reward the wicked ones with their inheritance.
Parental anxiety about their children’s love permeates the outlook of both men and they are both wracked with doubt, convinced they cannot rely upon the natural bond between them and their children.
The calamitous consequences for the kingdom of familial collapse are everywhere evident in the play. Families are not caring, supportive institututions. Brother pitted against brother, sister against sister. Mistrust, dishonesty and opportunism seem to dominate.
Other themes and sub-themes in King Lear
- Inheritance & Greed
- Family values
- Kingship – responsibility, authority, power, privilege
- Mental breakdown & madness – actual tempest, external & internal