The play begins with King Lear stepping down from the throne and dividing his kingdom between his three daughters, promising the largest share to the daughter who claims to love him the most. His choice of words is interesting, as he asks, "Which of you shall say we doth love us most," (King Lear. 1.1.50) and not, "Which of you doth love us most?" He values the appearance of love, in the form of flattery, over the actual emotion.
This is one example of Lear's hamartia: he values appearances over reality. To be flattered, even by false proclamations of devotion, mean more to him than the actual love of his favorite daughter, Cordelia. He takes her refusal to glorify her love for him as a direct betrayal and disowns her. Her lack of showmanship actually proves that her love is authentic. When the loyal nobleman, Kent, tries to show Lear the error of his ways, he is banished. Cordelia truly loves and honors Lear both as her father and as King and Kent is the only person who respects him enough to attempt to prevent him from making a bad decision. Thus, in one scene, Lear expels the two characters most loyal to him. This is the mark that Lear misses. This mistake is the miasma of the play. By giving up the throne to Goneril and Regan, he not only relinquishes his own power, but puts his entire country in jeopardy by putting the decision-making into the hands of people who only care about themselves.
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Much like Lear values the appearance of devotion, he also values the appearance of power. As he gives up the throne and gives his daughters control, he still expects to live and be treated as King. His status is the source of his hubris, and he attempts to retain all the benefits of title and power without any of the responsibilities that come with being a ruler.
Throughout the first two acts of the play, Lear is continually outraged as he finds his power slipping out of his grasp. He cannot fathom that the daughters he trusted would disrespect him, and the shock begins to send him into madness. The first insult is when Goneril tells him he must discharge half of his servants if he wants to continue to live with her. Fuming, he leaves and seeks Regan, from whom he expects drastically better treatment.
In Act II, Scene IV Lear finds his messenger, who is actually the faithful Kent in disguise, in the stocks. When he discovers that Regan and Cornwell are responsible for his mistreatment, he is shocked they too would disrespect him in such a manner. As this scene progresses, the two evil sisters join hands against their father and attempt to take from him what little power he has left. They give him the ultimatum of giving up all of his servants if he wants to live with either of them. Lear curses his traitorous daughters and insists he'd rather live without shelter than succumb to their betrayal. He leaves and embarks across the heath with only his Fool to accompany him.
This is where Lear's anagnorisis begins. He begins to understand that he can no longer command people as he did when he was King. Throughout Act III he reminds himself of his mistake and curses the daughters he foolishly believed loved him. He expresses regret that he mistreated his truly loyal daughter, Cordelia.
As Lear and the Fool journey across the heath, a wild storm accosts them. The storm directly correlates with Lear's own inner turmoil. He is going through an emotional upheaval as he descends into madness. He curses the storm as he curses his daughters, and challenges the storm to do its worst to him. The faithful Kent (still disguised) appears and convinces him to seek shelter. It is here, that we find the psychological center of the play. For the first time on their journey, Lear actually acknowledges the Fool and says, "Come on, my boy. How dost, my boy? Art cold?" (King. 3.2.68). This is the first time in the entire play that Lear considers the feelings of someone other than himself. He shows compassion toward another human being. This seemingly small token of affection marks the beginning of the growth of Lear's humility.
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The side-story of the nobleman Gloucester runs parallel Lear's own story. Gloucester is similarly tricked by a disloyal child (Edmund) into disowning a loyal child (Edgar.) Gloucester disagrees with how Goneril and Regan have treated their father and decides to help Lear, although he may be punished by death. He reveals to Edmund his intentions, and Edmund betrays him to Cornwall. In Act III, Scene V, Cornwall and the sisters gouge out Gloucester's eyes as a punishment for treason. This also marks a turning point in the play-a turning point of depravity. It is a signal that the cruelty at the core of King Lear will only continue and worsen.
As the King's humility grows, so does his madness. The only person he can effectively communicate with is Edgar, who is disguised as Poor Tom and is feigning madness. He makes Lear realize that all men are equal underneath their clothes, which causes the King to shun the worldly goods he previously valued and gain a newfound respect for nature. He finally accepts that there are forces in the world greater than himself and submits himself to them.
In Act IV, Cordelia returns to action for the first time since she was banished in Act I. She continues to prove to be virtuous as she has returned with an army from France in order to aid her father, in spite of the way he treated her. She forgives Lear unconditionally, and the audience is led to expect that good will triumph over evil.
One lesson Shakespeare tries to teach in this play is that evil will punish itself. Despite having all the power they want, Regan and Goneril begin to turn against one another because of the play's other central villain, Edmund. Regan's husband Cornwall is killed as a result of a wound inflicted by a servant who comes to Gloucester's defense, leaving her free to pursue and marry Edmund. Goneril devises a scheme to kill her husband Albany because he disapproves of her treatment of her father and also to gain more authority for herself. If Albany died, she would also be free to be with Edmund. Edmund, who began the play as a bastard with no rights, could end up becoming King if he marries either sister. However, Albany is alerted to the schemes against him by Edgar. The problem solves itself however, because Goneril poisons Regan in a bout of jealousy and then kills herself.
Sadly for the audience, Edmund captures both Lear and Cordelia. Even more sadly for Edmund, Albany charges him with treason and challenges him to a duel to defend himself of the charge. It is Edgar who faces him in combat. Edgar defeats Edmund, but leaves him alive at the request of Albany. In a surprising move, Edmund decides he must do something good before he dies and reveals his plot to kill Cordelia and attempts to stop itâ€¦ but his change of character comes too late. Lear carries her lifeless body, and in his madness wonders if she is truly alive or dead, and in the moment he thinks he sees her breathing, he himself dies.
The ending of King Lear leaves the audience without hope. One question the play asks is, "Does true justice exist?" and the answer it gives is pretty dismal. The ultimate answer is that both happiness and suffering lead to one end: death. Regardless of vice or virtue, everyone must die.
Characters like Regan and Goneril stir no sympathy in the audience when they die, as they are inherently evil. Cordelia, on the other end of the spectrum, invokes a great deal of sorrow when she is killed, as she is the most virtuous character in the play. Some of the characters in this play blur the lines of their designated roles and it makes it harder to judge them. Lear begins the play as a self-centered, self-important, and whimsically angry man. As the play goes on, his values to change and he realizes his mistakes. However, he never does overcome his madness and take charge to be a better King. In the end, he is "good" but it is impossible to say he is without fault. Gloucester ultimately does what is right and remains loyal to the king, but even he is guilty of adultery. Edmund is probably to most evil character in the play, but it is also easy to feel sorry for him. It is possible that he is not evil to his core and is the way he is due to a lifetime of mistreatment due to his status as a bastard. Perhaps his villainy is a response to his environment. His change of heart in the end shows that he had at least a shred of goodness in him.
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Three characters are left alive at the close of the play: Albany, Edgar, and Kent. Albany comments, "All friends shall taste/ The wages of their virtue, and all foes/The cup of their deservings," (King. 5.3.277-279). By his theory, both good and evil get what they deserve. This is true, if one considers that the surviving characters are all "good." But if one takes a look at the deaths that occur in the play, his theory does not fit. It is true that all of the evil characters (Regan, Goneril, Cornwall, and Edmund) are punished by death, but the good characters die with them. Gloucester, King Lear, and especially Cordelia did not live to taste the "wages of their virtue" as Albany suggests.
What separates good from evil, even as they come to the same fate of death, is how they die. The evil characters cause their own undoing, or they turn against one another and kill each other. The good characters are ready to fight for what is good and are willing to give their lives for it. Gloucester risks his life to aid Lear and he is punished by being blinded. A servant, witnessing this injustice, stands up for him because he knows what is being done is wrong. For a servant to stand up to a Queen in such a way was probably unheard of in those days, and for this offense he was killed. Kent was so loyal to Lear that he was willing to disguise himself and stand by him even though he was banished, and put his life on the line in doing so. Cordelia waged a war against her sisters with the sole purpose of honoring her King and father. The good characters die as a result of selflessness, while the evil ones die serving their own desires.
At the end of King Lear, one might wonder why all of the cruelty and hopelessness are necessary. Shakespeare is not an author of fairy tales. The play represents the truth. The story is dismal because the world is dismal. In real life, both good and bad people die and thus Shakespeare's characters suffer the same fate.