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In many plays of William Shakespeare the motif of betrayal is used to show the fallout and misfortune it brings, such as in Shakespeare's play Julius Caesar. However, in his play King Lear, Shakespeare uses the motif of betrayal to demonstrate how not every betrayal must lead to agony and misfortune and ultimately can result to good endings and a change of character for the better. The motif of betrayal in the play King Lear shows how betrayal can be a strong force that not only leads to downfall and corruption but also a force that causes a rise and fall in power, a revealing of hidden emotions and a change for the good in the characters of the play.
Betrayal overall in the play shows how quickly power can be gained and just how quickly it can be lost as well. The first major betrayal in the play that causes an outcome of loss of power is the betrayal of King Lear toward his daughter Cordelia. When Lear states "Here I disclaim all my paternal care" the tragedy of the play begins to unfold, furthermore allowing the greatest betrayal of the play to unfold as well (I.I.11). In this quotation Lear is stating that he is not only giving up his parenting rights for Cordelia but is also giving up his love for her. Here Lear is feeling angered by the fact that his only true daughter has betrayed him by not claiming her love for him, but the true betrayal here is Lear's betrayal by not trusting that Cordelia's love for her father can not be said in words. As more events of the play continue to uncover, the true identities of Goneril and Regan, the eldest daughter of King Lear is witnessed. It is quickly learned that Goneril and Regan do not truly love their father and their betrayal of Lear as well as their betrayal for their sister Cordelia leads to their rise of power. In the following quotation Goneril states "then must we look to receive from his age, not alone the imperfections of long-engraffed condition" (I.I.120). Here Goneril along with her sister Regan are plotting on how to rid of their father and take control all his land and his wealth. They see his shunning of Cordelia as well as his aging as and advantage to them because now they feel as though their plot to rise for power is indestructible.
The sisters' betrayal of their father ultimately leads them to having more power than Lear himself and soon leads them to have control of what they have desired all along. Their betrayal is one of the greatest in the play because it causes others to occur and it goes on more than the sisters had thought it would and gives the sisters more power than they had planned on gaining. Later on in the play as the character Edmund is revealed his true intentions and motives are also revealed. In hopes of gaining his father's wealth Edmund decides to betray his own brother Edgar and get ahead in the gaining of his father's affections. After setting his brother up and later having a conversation with his father Gloucester, Edmund states "I hope for my brother's justification, he wrote this but as an essay or taste of my virtue" (I.II.42). Here another rise of power is portrayed. Edmund's betrayal and his ulterior motives toward his brother Edgar gives him and open door and open access to the power he so longs for. By gaining his father's affections, he then will able to rid of his father as well and continue to sneak and lie his way into the trust of many and continue to allow more betrayals to occur. This part of the play not only shows the motif of betrayal but also brings up the motifs of trust and lies. Edmund had both Edgar and Gloucester thinking that he was on their side and was willing to fight for them; rather he had fooled both of them. He gained both of their trust through the lies he told, and used their trust as a way to satisfy his hunger for power.
Another example of the play where betrayal causes hidden emotions to be revealed is the betrayal of Goneril and Regan toward their father, their sister and eventually toward each other, and how this causes the revealing of their hidden lust for Edmund. After committing many acts of betrayals and finally reaching the point of absolute power both Goneril and Regan began to develop affections for Edmund, after seeing Edmund make a rise of power as well. These emotions cause the sisters to ultimately turn against each other and fight for Edmund's heart. During and aside Goneril states "I had rather lose the battle than that sister loosen him and me" (V.I.24). Here knowing that her sister Regan is after Edmund as well Goneril states that she will not allow her sister to win the battle for Edmund's heart. However what both sisters do not realize is that they are not truly fighting for Edmund's heart nor do they truly love Edmund, they are only lusting for him and are merely attracted to the fact that Edmund has gained such great power as well as the fact that he is mischievous, treacherous, ambitious and very manipulative traits that both Goneril and Regan have in common with Edmund.
Shakespeare's usage of the motif of betrayal in the play not only shows a rise and fall in power, but also is used to reveal hidden emotions among the characters of the play. The first encounter of a hidden emotion is that of Edmund's when he is revealing to the audience of his hatred and desire to take down both his brother and his father. During one of the play's soliloquies Edmund states "Stand in the plague of custom, and permit the curiosity of nations to deprive me" (I.II.3, 4). Here Edmund is revealing his anger and hatred of the way he is treated and others like him are treated. He is angered by the fact that he is a bastard child and unlike his brother Edgar, will not receive his father's wealth. His hidden anger and hatred toward his father and brother allows him to quietly and mischievously create havoc and unfold yet another betrayal. Soon, these hidden and unsettling emotions of his begin to be expressed out loud, which soon causes Edmund to fight back and allow others to see not only his feeling but his intentions and motives as well. Another character's hidden emotions that are revealed after a series of betrayal is the hidden emotions of Kent. Kent a servant of King Lear is banished from the kingdom by Lear himself, after standing up for Cordelia. But rather than hate Lear and wish to take revenge upon him the audience discovers that Kent's return as a disguised character is so that he could continue to serve Lear. After having disguised himself, during and aside Kent states "If thou canst serve where thou dost stand condemn'd" (I.IV.5). This shows Kent's hidden loyalty and love toward Lear. Although Lear treated Kent horribly and betrayed Kent and Kent's love, Kent continue to be loyal and returned as Lear's servant only because he is one of the few characters in the play who truly shows love toward Lear. Being that Kent is not only disguised physically, but mentally as well having to hide his love for Lear, allows him to grow closer to Lear and continue to gain the trust of not only Lear but Cordelia as well.
Perhaps one of the main reasons Shakespeare chose to vividly portray the motif of betrayal is to demonstrate how not every betrayal must lead to a battle of evil vs. good, in many cases where good wins and evil learns no lesson. Although, in this play many of the characters who where portrayed as antagonists came to show a change for the better. Although a very minor change Edmund, one of the play's greatest villains comes to show a change after being defeated. After seeing the havoc and devastation that he has caused Edmund has a change of heart and orders the release of the imprisoned Cordelia, he then states "I pant for life: some good I meant to do" (V.III.103). Here Edmund who plays a villain throughout the entire play, reveals that before he goes he would like to do and see some good done. And although it is too late for Cordelia to be saved, the audiences still witnesses a character make a drastic change from being a villain and having no feelings for others to a character that shows remorse and pity. Another major character who shows a change of character for the better is King Lear. Although not being a villain in the play Lear still committed some acts of a villain that cause him to wrong those who did not deserve it. After seeing the dead body of Cordelia and weeping over it Lear loudly exclaims "And my poor fool is hang'd! No, no, no life!" (V.III.313).During this part of the play Lear finally realizes that his only true and loving daughter was Cordelia. He begs for her forgiveness to himself and in the midst of it all collapses and dies. This shows a shift of Lear's attitude and trust. He goes from believing that Cordelia betrayed him to realizing that he in fact was the one who betrayed Cordelia. He betrayed her in not believing her love for him was pure and true. However had it not been for Lear's betrayal toward Cordelia, Lear would never have had a change of heart and realized that unlike his two other daughter Regan and Goneril, Cordelia had true intentions and meant no harm toward her father.
Ultimately in the play King Lear, Shakespeare not only reveals multiple uses of the motif of betrayal, but also shows how every betrayal in the play could have been avoided. One betrayal escalates and furthermore allows another betrayal to unfold. The play also comes to reveal how every betrayer whether good or evil foreshadows and causes their own downfall or destruction. Shakespeare's usage of the motif of betrayal in the play shows how unlike many other works, betrayal although still destructive can still be a powerful force that reveals unknown situations and can cause a change in people.