Sunday, May 15, 2011

Research Paper on King Lear

Research Paper on King Lear

George Orwell comments, " King Lear is a poor play, as a play. It is too drawn out and has too many characters and sub plots. One Wicked daughter would have been quite enough and the play would be better if Gloucester and both his sons were eliminated." I don't agree with this conclusion. In King Lear Shakespeare makes a commitment to question why, rather than who and what. He delves into the psyche of human beings, brings dimension to their minds and provides method to their madness. In doing this he poses philosophical questions surrounding the concept of justice and redemption. By quick summation, and plot and character analysis, I will seek to elaborate on these statements and dismantle Orwell's criticism of King Lear's double plot and various characters.

King Lear involves a plot and a subplot. It is the only Shakespeare work to have a subplot in addition to the main story. The characters in the plot include: King Lear, Goneril, Regan, Cordelia, Earl of Kent, Fool, Albany, King of France, Cornwall, and Oswald. Earl of Gloucester, Edgar or Poor Tom, and Edmund play out the subplot.

King Lear is the King of Britain who is betrayed by his two daughters Goneril and Regan. Cordelia, his youngest daughter, is an icon of truth and sincerity. She refuses to flatter her father and is banished because of it. Fool is a loyal member of the King's court and seeks to inform and protect his King. Albany is Goneril's husband and Cornwall is Reagan's husband.


Earl of Gloucester is Lear's good friend, who like Lear cannot see which child is good and which seeks to betray him. Edgar is Gloucester's eldest and legitimate son. Edmund is Gloucester's youngest and illegitimate son.

In Act 1 Scene 1 the primary and secondary plot is established. The audience learns that King Lear must divide his Kingdom among his three daughters. The audience also learns that Gloucester has two sons, an older legitimate heir and a younger illegitimate son. However, Gloucester loves both sons equally. This information constructs the framing of the subplot. Lear states in a public ceremony that he has divided his kingdom into three parts and he would distribute them according to their declarations of love. Goneril and Regan both proclaim limitless, undying love and devotion while Cordelia offers an earthly honest answer. Lear interprets Cordelia's honesty as rejection and banishes her. He splits the Kingdom between Goneril and Regan who immediately begin plotting against their father. Lear banishes Kent for asking him to reconsider and the Duke withdraws his offer of marriage to Cordelia, The King of France announces his intent to marry Cordelia.

George Orwell's criticism of King Lear seems to be a hastily drawn conclusion. In the following pages I will seek to deconstruct this statement by proving the relevance of the plot and subplot, the importance of characters and the meaning of the play.

Shakespeare utilizes a double plot to point out contextual and human issues. He appeals to his Elizabethian audience by relating on both political and familial levels. King Lear is one of the only plays that employ the double plot literary device. However, The apparent chaos and complexity of his parallel plots seems to mirror the times. In the period which Shakespeare was writing King Lear, England had endured years of civil war, and political and religious turmoil; acquainting the English all too well with the perils of family betrayal and divided society. The two plots are intimately intertwined; they validate and support each other. The two plots provide insight into the human psyche and establish a duality in human nature. In the first plot we see the example of Goneril and Regan who are given a Kingdom by their loyal father. In absolute narcissism they abandon any moral law and take a code of ethics that only references greed and ultimate power. They symbolize the majority. Orwell argues only one wicked daughter is enough however by creating a majority Shakespeare gives strength to his ultimate statement of human nature. The older sisters represent human's who live absent of a moral or natural law while Cordelia adheres to a higher law. This could be interpreted as religious teachings but also as the philosophical teachings of Plato and Aristotle. Cordelia in her honesty and sincerity represents the minority.

In the subplot involving the two sons we see a more profound statement of social institutions rather than purely familial relations. Even though Gloucester treats his sons fairly and equally, Elizabethian society does not regard them equally. Edmund fears that the laws of primogeniture, which name the eldest son heir to his father's possessions, will leave him shorthanded. The same dichotomies of good versus bad appear to manifest itself in Edmund and Edgar.

Additionally, in both plot and subplot the father seems to be senseless and blind to the children they reared.

The use of many characters is to draw a spectrum of good and evil instead of the classic "black and white" interpretation. We see all kinds of good, all types of bad and the in between. The characters Shakespeare chooses are more thought out than in other works. The villains are rational villains, and the characters are less symbolic and more multi-dimensional, although ironically they become symbols in conclusion. For instance, the children who betray their father's have done so with malice coming from hurt or insecurity. In the case of Goneril and Regan their father always favored Cordelia, leaving them insecure and hurt. Edmund feels inadequate in his status of illegitimacy. Furthermore, Goneril seems intent at all costs of acquiring the kingdom, yet in the end she is willing to give it all up for a man. Regan exhibits humanity briefly in that she shows some concern that Gloucester should be relieved of his suffering. Edmund seems heartless yet in the end repents for his sins and openly expresses regret. Cornwall is an icon for evil. He shows no inconsistency in his campaign for terror and violence and has no finest hour. In Albany's character the dichotomy of good and evil is blatantly exposed. In the end his good side wins out proving that he is subject to a higher law. Oswald is an obedient slave to evil, but could just as likely be to good. His master happened to be Goneril's, and his loyalty to her puts him in the villainous category. In the middle of the spectrum of good and evil we have the truly humanistic characters, characters that make mistakes, yet without malice. They later understand their errors and attempt to fix them. King Lear is an example of this description. He is lured by flattery, offended by honesty and in his narcissism makes the mistake that costs him his kingdom and ultimately his life. Lear has his faults he does not deal with life well, resorting to angry outbursts and succumbs to self-pity. He relies on Fool to obscure his reality. He eventually shows regret, remorse and empathy and compassion. Lear comes to realize there is a higher law than himself the king, though it takes consequence for him to realize a higher consciousness. The Earl of Gloucester is frankly, a fool yet not a cruel man. Gloucester avoids reality as his friend Lear does. For example he blames events on the stars and absolves himself from any responsibility. However, he displays true heroics by volunteering his own life for the king. The King of Burgundy's only crime is being narcissistic and selfish. Then we have our Christ- like figures who seem to be good no matter what. They exhibit virtue, morality, loyalty and compassion. They remain true to their virtue and not to a specific gain. Cordelia embodies goodness; she is loyal, honest, and compassionate. Fool and the Earl of Kent are loyal to the end, and the King of France is honorable and sincere.

Shakespeare draws a spectrum, he pencils in characters and colors them with life, yet the tragic ends of his play lead us to the question, where is the justice? This concept is addressed widely in the Elizabethian era because the tenants of religion played such a significant role in everyday life. In principal, society embraced and idolized God-like standards yet the bloodshed over religion paints a bitter hypocrisy.

The final scene brings resolution to the plot and subplot. There are many battles of good versus evil in King Lear and in the end it seems no one wins; everyone dies. Yet, the Christ-like figures do not die in vain. They teach important lessons. They teach virtue and compassion, self- reflection and regret. Perhaps Shakespeare is minimizing our existence on earth and assuming that the punishments and rewards come in the afterlife. The audience must determine at this point whether they think divine justice has prevailed. This is where Shakespeare leaves his tragedy open for interpretation and challenges the faith of the audience.

In conclusion, the play King Lear is long, it has many characters that seem like a reiteration of each other, and a double plot is complicated but in closer analysis this structure of theatre more resembles the lives and the times. In creating complexity and interweaving stories, by having more characters and becoming closely acquainted with those characters, deeper questions can be pondered. And perhaps the most powerful component of King Lear is the introspection it forces upon the reader. In drawing a spectrum of good and evil and lacking to provide any guarantee of a just outcome, he indirectly asks us, "what would you do and where would you be?"
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