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Select either two or three major speeches from the play “King Lear” (Shakespeare) and demonstrate, by close analysis, their relevance to issues in the play as a whole
The two speeches I have selected from the play to conduct close analysis on are Lear’s speech in Act I Scene I (Lines 121 – 139) and Cordelia’s speech of Act V Scene VII (Lines 31-43). These two speeches are reflective of some of the strongest themes of the play: familial love, anger, wrath and, most of all perhaps, pride.
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The first speech is placed at the very beginning of the play just after Cordelia has refused to praise her father in the same over-effusive manner as her sisters, and Shakespeare conveys in a few short lines the almost uncontrollable anger of Lear:
Lear: Peace kent!
Come not between the dragon and his wrath.
I love her most, and though to set my rest
On her kind nursery
We can note here the evocation of the dragon which, as Harold Bloom (1987: 90) tells us, is not only symbolic of the male, paternal anger but of the monarchy itself and recalls the Englishness of St. George. As if metonymic with the entire play, this symbol of royal wrath and anger is twinned with an image of childish reliance – the nursery. The next lines however reverse this image juxtaposition as the aggressor, in the form Lear the dragon, is painted as the victim:
Hence, and avoid my sight!
So be my grave my peace, as here I give
Her father’s heart from her.!
The knot of guilt and innocence is one that recurs throughout the entire play but it is first suggested in this speech; for instance in the lines:
Call Burgundy, Cornwall and Albany,
With my two daughter’s dowers digest this third:
Let pride, which she calls plainness marry her.
We witness here what Freud called projection (1991: 213) or the imbuing of an emotion or character trait onto another person; it is Lear’s pride that we really see here, and Lear’s anger that dominates the entire first section of the play but the character himself deflects that onto the figure of his youngest daughter.
Linguistically, the speech is suffused with exclamations (especially the first six lines) and the rhythms and lines themselves are short and staccato. There is also an alliterative use of harsh consonant sounds, for instance in the line my two daughters’ dowers digest this third (Act I, Scene I, Line 128) or The sway, revenue, execution of the rest (Act I, Scene I, Line 137). This sets Lear’s character as one that is unbending and proud; an important facet of the play’s later narrative where his harmartia (to use Aristotle’s (1965) term) in the form of his paternal pride, is revealed and reversed.
The speech ends with a foreshadowing of the narrative of the whole play:
Beloved sons, be yours; which to confirm,
This coronet part betwixt you.
Here, Lear unconsciously evokes the rending apart of territory as he sets in motion the fissures and fractures in the fabric of the monarchy that the play examines.
The speech by Codelia in Act V in many ways represents the reverse of Lear’s. It is here that Shakespeare underlines the notion of familial loyalty, of constancy and of love and comes after Cordelia has reiterated her dedication for her father.
Had you not been their father, these white flakes
Had challenged pity on them. Was this face
To be opposed against the warring winds
Straight away we can notice the change in tone here, the repetition of Ds, Vs and Rs in Lear’s speech has been changed to Fs and Ws, creating a more sonorous timbre evocative of Cordelia’s gentle nature and the spirit of reconciliation that runs throughout her speech. The imagery Shakespeare uses here is reflective of the mimetic use of Nature throughout the rest of the play; Cordelia mentions the winds, the dread-bolted thunder (Act I, Scene VII, Line 34), and the quick, cross lightening (Act I, Scene VII, Line 36) all of which reminds us of Lear’s exile on the moors and the suggestion that this represents, for Shakespeare, the uncontrollable forces of fate.
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As Jay Halio (2001: 37-38) suggests, the loss of control that is symbolically evoked by the image of Nature, is a result of the splitting of the Kingdom, that we have already looked with the Lear speech of Act I and only resolves itself at this precise point in the play.
The latter parts of the speech hint at Cordelia’s role as a restorative force; she literally makes her father human again after the treatment he is given by her sisters:
Mine enemy’s dog,
Though he had bit me, should have stood that night
Against my fire; and wast thou fain, poor father,
To hovel thee with swine, and rogues forlorn,
In short and musty straw?
Here Shakespeare layers image upon image of baseness and animality to suggest not only how far the King has been reduced but also how true and loyal Cordelia is.
In the two speeches we have looked at here, we have seen many of the themes of King Lear and also some the play’s complexity. The play is, at once we could assert, concerned with both pride and constancy, anger and gentleness, wrath and restoration and the two speeches I have selected show this in microcosm. Each one also represents important points in the character development of Lear himself; his initial rebuke of his daughter evoking the false pride of the all too powerful monarch and Cordelia’s speech prompting his character reversal.
A close analysis of these two speeches reveals just how Shakespeare weaves grand themes and narratives into the very fabric, the very minutiae of his text, evoking in an audience an almost subconscious appreciation of philosophical and thematic intents.
Aristotle (1965), The Poetics, London: Penguin
Bloom, Harold (1987), William Shakespeare’s King Lear, New York: Random House
Freud, Sigmund (1991), The Essentials of Psychoanalysis, (London: Penguin
Halio, Jay (2001), King Lear: A Guide to the Play, London: Greenwood Press
Shakespeare, William (1982), ‘King Lear’, published in The Tragedies, London: Aurora pp.218-239
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