"Some rise by sin, and some by virtue fall," writes Shakespeare in his comedy, Measure for Measure. The trouble lies in what is deemed sinful and what is constituted as virtuous. During the Renaissance two conflicting notions of a servant's duty and loyalty to the sovereign existed. Both contrasting models of the proper etiquette of a subject are linked with the divine order of God. Should a subject remain unconditionally loyal to the king, even when that king is behaving in an evil fashion, because the king is ordained by God? Or does the subject have his or her own obligation to God to resist or rebel against a king who violates his contract with God and the people? William Shakespeare's King Lear illustrates these two competing notions, all the while encompassing the theme of appearance throughout the play. Shakespeare presents a complex cast of players that make up the interlocking family tragedies between Lear and Gloucester's families. When both Lear and Gloucester are faced with troublesome situations, their subordinates each have their own modus operandi for responding to authority. Subsequently, the reader is presented with both patriarchs, Lear and Gloucester, deceived by the inaccurate appearances of Goneril, Regan, and Edmund, and Cordelia, Kent, and Edgar. The former are initially believed to be good-natured and virtuous in their actions and claims, ultimately to be exposed for their deceptive plots against their fathers. While the latter, are all condemned or falsely accused for being disloyal, when in fact turn out to be the most honorable of them all. In King Lear Shakespeare suggests resistance to the king, when the kingdom's best interest is the driving force. Through this notion, Shakespeare presents two vulnerable masters, who by deception fall when foolishly blinded by the appearances of their fearless subjects. In illustrating good and evil, these subjects appear presumably the exact opposite of what they actually are, those of evil nature, appear good, while those of good nature appear evil.
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In King Lear figures of authority, Lear and Gloucester, both encounter these contrasting types of relationships with those intended to serve them. The question of loyalty is brought to the test when characters are faced with various upsets in nature. In two separate inheritance issues, Lear foolishly divides his kingdom between his daughters, while Gloucester's bastard son Edmund will not one day inherit like elder, legitimate brother, Edgar. Similarly, in both of these situations both Lear and Gloucester are faced with subjects who appear to be loyal and honest to them, but are ultimately deceived. For Lear, Goneril and Regan, both submit to their father's request for a declaration of their love for him before he relinquishes the throne and divides the kingdom. These two eldest daughters appease their father with verbal declarations of love and flattery, "Sir, I do love you more than words can wield the matter, / Dearer than eyesight space or liberty" says eldest daughter Goneril (1.1.48-49). Regan states that she feels the same as her sister, but her sister falls short and Regan then professes herself "an enemy to all other joys / Which the most precious square of sense possesses," claiming that she is solely happy in the king's love (1.1.66-67). Within these intricate lines one can see the lack of sincerity under the surface of fancy words. Goneril and Regan's verbal compliance with their father is enough for Lear to pass his kingdom down to them, his tragic and ultimately fatal flaw, driven by his desire for pride. But it is as early as the end of the first act that the two eldest daughters are plotting against their father. "We must do something, / and i' th' heat" proclaims Goneril at the close of Act 1, Scene 1 (1.1.295). As if Lear is not foolish enough to divide his kingdom, he is immediately deceived by the appearances his daughters take on, quickly to begin plotting against him soon after. Goneril and Regan illustrate the notion that a subject is indebted to God, and therefore must resist when authority is not acting properly. But these two daughters are clearly not driven by the divine order, but by greed, illustrating their unscrupulous resistance and betrayal towards Lear. Shakespeare portrays both Goneril and Regan as evil, conveying the notion that their self-driven resistance is not favored because it is not grounded in the desire to benefit the kingdom. Though Lear's act of dividing his kingdom, distributing power between his daughters, would have been seen as foolish, he is undeserving of the subsequent treatment from his vile daughters and their servants.
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Just as Lear is deceived through the appearance of the nature of his daughters, resulting in their subsequent mistreatment and selfish rebellion against him, Gloucester falls victim to his son Edmund. Angered by his status as a bastard, and the subsequent disinheritance that comes along with it, Edmund, also driven by greed, devises a plot to inherit the throne, betraying both his father and brother in the process. Edmund leads Gloucester to believe that Edgar is devising a conspiracy in which Edmund kills Gloucester, and Edgar then inheriting the throne, splits the inheritance with Edmund. This fictitious plot, cunningly presented to Gloucester, could not be farther from the truth, but is enough to send the innocent Edgar into hiding, fearing for his life. Gloucester is fooled by appearance into believing that the evil Edmund has good intentions, just as Lear is by Goneril and Regan. It is as the play unfolds that both Lear and Gloucester pay for their foolish mistakes of believing their children have good intentions, as Goneril, Regan, and Edmund all deceive, and are ultimately exposed for their greed-driven rebellions. Through these three characters Shakespeare illustrates the subject-master relationship that calls for the subjects' resistance against a king that violates his contact with God and the people. But in these cases the resistance is purely self-driven, only to benefit the bettering of each party rebelling against the king, not letting anyone or anything get in the way of fortune and power. Like Goneril and Regan, Edmund is also portrayed as evil, acting solely to benefit himself, while avariciously betraying his father and brother. The pain and agony Gloucester endures through Edmund's deceit, is one he is unworthy of, even though he created Edmund in sinful fashion, out of wedlock. Whether or not Edmund was born with the status of a bastard, he still would be unable to inherit from his father because he is the second born son.
Ironically, Lear and Gloucester are both victims of deception, failing to see that what appears good is actually evil, and what appears evil is actually good. The subject-sovereign relationships Shakespeare presents in King Lear are far too complex to just say that there are three characters who are the polar-opposites of Goneril, Regan, and Edmund, and they are Cordelia, the Earl of Kent, and Edgar. The characters and relationships are so elaborate, but Shakespeare does convey good with the former three and evil with the latter. With the exception of Edgar, on the surface Lear views both Cordelia and Kent as resisting him, Cordelia's refusal to comply with Lear's wish for her to verbally express her love, and Kent subsequent opposition when Lear banishes Cordelia. On the surface, these actions appear to be those of subjects who resist their masters, but these are the ones who ultimately wind up serving and remaining loyal to their king. The resistance illustrated by these characters is not portrayed as self-driven, but purely and whole-heartedly in the best interests of the authority figure. Shakespeare never once presents these characters as evil, unlike the malevolent undertone that accompanies Goneril, Regan, and Edmund. Like Lear's inaccurate and foolish interpretations based on the way Cordelia and Kent appear to be, Gloucester believes Edmund and in his eyes Edgar appears to be evil, plotting his father's murder. Edgar winds up taking on the identity of a beggar, Poor Tom, and prevents Gloucester from suicide, before he reveals his true identity and is reunited with his blind father. For Lear and Gloucester, the only thing certain, is that nothing is as it seems. When Cordelia and Kent have Lear's best interest in mind, they wind up banished by the foolish king for speaking the truth. Those who resist, when attempting to remain loyal to the king are banished, yet they still yearn to remain loyal. Shakespeare presents the Earl of Kent in Act 1, Scene 1 after trying to show Lear that Cordelia does in fact love him, getting himself banished. Accepting his punishment humbly, Kent leaves nobly, never once uttering any bad words about Lear. In Act 1, Scene 4 Kent returns disguised in hopes to continue his service to Lear. Kent speaks to the audience saying, "Now, banished Kent, / If thou canst serve where thou dost stand condemned, / Thy master, whom thou lov'st, shall find thee full of labor" (1.4.4-6). Kent's yearning to serve Lear leads him to come back as Caius, and Cordelia eventually returns to her father's side, forgiving him. Goneril, Regan, and Edmund use false appearances to present themselves as obedient and loyal to their respective fathers, but in turn use this to their advantage, as they attempt to work their way to power dishonorably by rebelling unjustly.
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Shakespeare presents characters who on the surface appeared to gently resist the king, with the king's best interest in mind, then ultimately come back even after banishment and remain loyal and honorable to the king. Those who on the surface appear to be in compliance with their masters, deceptively telling them everything they want to hear, are the ones who are acting solely with themselves in mind, and eventually wind up rebelling because they are power-hungry. But the characters of Goneril, Regan, and Edmund, truly of evil nature, wind up even betraying and deceiving each other. And while blinded by appearance, Lear and Gloucester, who literally winds up blind, ultimately die for their foolish and tragic mistakes, and the loyal and honest Kent and Edgar are rewarded with life.
As for Cordelia's death, it serves as the trigger for Lear's death. The reader can see full-circle how Lear is blind to the one daughter who truly loves him, banishes her, yet she return to her father's aid when her sisters, whom he entrusts with his kingdom and life, betray him. Since Shakespeare does not present Cordelia as an evil character, no selfish motives for resistance or rebellion, one interpretation of her death can be seen as a Christ like figure. Cordelia does not die out of punishment or fulfillment of the divine order, but she is rather sacrificed in the end. After Lear enters holding Cordelia's lifeless body, Kent asks "Is this the promised end?" (5.3.262). This references implies the notion of Judgment Day. Though Cordelia being sacrificed as a Christ figure is not exactly indicative of Judgment Day, Shakespeare can still be seen as conveying somewhat of a religious undertone. The Final Judgment, simply put in terms of Christianity, is the end of the world, where all of humanity is being judged by God. The world is ending, or at least Lear's world is, and Cordelia must be taken, sacrificed, as part of the promised end.
Finally we see how both Lear and Gloucester encounter different complex relationships with those intended to serve and remain loyal to them. The trouble lies in the type of loyalty that should be complied with, unconditional loyalty or the obligation to resist? But Shakespeare does not clearly present these concepts; they are intertwined and warped, illustrated through a complicated cast of players that make up the tragic plot of King Lear. The Bard shows us cleverly that nothing is as it seems, and we witness characters of evil, first perceived to be good, while characters of good are perceived through their gentle resistance to be evil. The truth lies in the complexity of the nature of these characters as it is seen that the characters who resist to benefit themselves, driven by their greed, the desire for power and wealth, are the ones who in the end self-destruct. Those who act not to better themselves, but on behalf of the sovereign's best interest, are the characters Shakespeare presents as good-natured. But one final question we must ask is whether it is better to be loved than feared, or the reverse? Machiavelli writes on the subject in The Prince and when applied to Lear and Gloucester one must wonder. It would be ideal for one to be both loved and feared, but Machiavelli notes the difficulty of this, stating that if only one notion can dominate, a prince should strive to be feared, rather than loved. Though Lear and Gloucester tragically fall by deception, sustaining undeserving physical and mental agony, could this have been avoided if they were feared by those intended to serve them? "The bond of love is one which men, wretched creatures that they are, break when it is in their advantage to do so; but fear is strengthened by a dread of punishment which is always effective," writes Machiavelli (97). Lear, so fixated on his pride, was ironically more concerned with hearing of his daughter's love for him, rather than allowing them to fear him. And Gloucester, if he was feared by Edmund, would Edmund have even dared to formulate his treacherous plot to betray his father and brother? Had all of these subjects been fearful of their authority figures, would there even have been a tragic plot to stage? One cannot be certain, so instead we see the fall to deception of two masters, deceived by the appearances of good and evil of those around them.