Character of Life in King Lear

I. Introduction

King Lear is at once the most highly praised and intensely criticized of all Shakespeare’s works. Samuel Johnson said it is “deservedly celebrated among the dramas of Shakespeare” yet at the same time he supported the changes made in the text by Tate in which Cordelia is allowed to retire with victory and felicity. “Shakespeare has suffered the virtue of Cordelia to perish in a just cause, contrary to the natural ideas of justice, to the hope of the reader, and, what is yet more strange, to the faith of chronicles.”1 A.C. Bradley’s judgement is that King Lear is “Shakespare’s greatest work, but it is not...the best of his plays.”2 He would wish that “the deaths of Edmund, Goneril, Regan and Gloucester should be followed by the escape of Lear and Cordelia from death,” and even goes so far as to say: “I believe Shakespeare would have ended his play thus had he taken the subject in hand a few years later....”3

Many critics have sworn that the story is too fantastic and cruel to be true and that it should be viewed only as an allegory or fantasy. Yet Johnson called it a “just representation of the common events of human life” and C.J. Sisson has cited historical evidence from the lives of several men which closely resembled Lear’s division of his kingdom and tragic rejection by his daughters.

Despite its undeniable greatness, throughout the last four centuries King Lear has left audiences, readers and critics alike emotionally exhausted and mentally unsatisfied by its conclusion. Shakespeare seems to have created a world too cruel and unmerciful to be true to life and too filled with horror and unrelieved suffering to be true to the art of tragedy. These divergent impressions arise from the fact that of all Shakespeare’s works, King Lear expresses human existence in its most universal aspect and in its profoundest depths. A psychological analysis of the characters such as Bradley undertook cannot by itself resolve or place in proper perspective all the elements which contribute to these impressions because there is much here beyond the normal scope of psychology and the conscious or unconscious motivations in men. Nor can a broad holistic approach such as G. Wilson Knight’s which portrays the dramatic milieu of the play without clearly revealing the lines of causality, the role of character and the relationship between symbol and reality, art and life.

We can see in Shakespeare’s works a gradual development which in a sense parallels the historical development of dramatic literature. In his early comedies plot is the sole or major element and character remains a minor or insignificant determinant. As his art develops, the delineation and individuality of character becomes more prominent and is able to exert a major influence on the course of action. In his later works, Shakespeare transcends even the boundaries of individual character, giving his works a still wider amplitude. The character, atmosphere and forces at play in the social milieu are portrayed and integrated with the plot. Not only man but physical nature--the animals, climate, stars, seas--are related to and become expressions of the human experience. A power or powers greater than man, forces of universal life, good and evil, the gods and fate--influence and even determine the course of events overriding human motives and action. But always the portrayal remains faithful to the realities and potentialities of human nature. This is the impression we get from Shakespeare’s greatest works, the impression of an all-embracing vision of human existence in its widest cosmic context.

King Lear is not only a consummate artistic masterpiece. It is also Shakespeare’s most all-encompassing portrayal of human life. Character, atmosphere, dramatic techniques are all employed and inextricably bound together in an effort to give living reality to his vision. Like nature herself, Shakespeare has created a world which is in its essence and major outlines, in its portrayal of human personality and social interrelations, in its expressions of simultaneity and sequence and in many other respects true to life. The challenge that he poses before us is to discover the nature of the correspondence between his work and nature’s own creation and, once that correspondence is known, to see in and through his work the character of life itself.

Numerous theories have been put forth to explain the sequence of tragedies Shakespeare wrote during this same period by linking it to some experience of melancholy, anger, despair in the author himself. But such theories overlook the fact that it is in this very same period, in fact, in these same tragic works that he has portrayed the heights to which human nature can rise in its purest and noblest if not happiest terms. Surely the creation of so much light alongside the darkness and the perfection of the artistic medium through which he gives them expression argue against them having been written in a state of melancholy or any other condition which is a drain on the mental energies. It is not the dark side of human nature which is Shakespeare’s chief concern at all. His effort is to portray human life in its fullest, widest and profoundest context; to reveal not only the dark depths but also the treasure rooms of our being; to pierce beneath the superficial motives and forces of our surface behaviour, social and cultural expressions, to the deeper levels of individual character and human nature; and to place these aspects of human existence in their true relation to the wider field of universal life. He chose the medium of tragedy because at his time man had not yet emerged sufficiently from the lower and darker portion of nature which he inherited from his animal ancestors. The greatest intensities of which human life was capable were suffering, hatred and evil and it was through such experiences that they most fully realized their place in the cosmic scheme. Certainly love, joy, nobility, loyalty, self-giving were developed, in some individual cases to a very high pitch, but they were not yet able to establish themselves in the consciousness of humanity to the extent of the negative forces in nature.

In King Lear Shakespeare transcends the natural boundaries of drama to express life beyond the limits of his artistic medium. For this reason Bradley calls it his greatest work but not his best play. Its failure as a play is a success at a higher and wider level. In Macbeth Shakespeare represents destruction at the physical level--war, murder, etc. In Lear it is faith, love, hope and expectation that are destroyed--things of the mind. It is psychological destruction in the wider plane of life, destruction of values not just bodies.

The forces expressing themselves in King Lear are of universal dimensions. Both good and evil find their purest and most powerful expressions but it is the impression of evil which is most predominant and enduring. Kindness and goodness were not sufficiently developed to get expressed on that scale. It can be seen that Shakespeare’s evil, cruel characters are always more powerful than his good ones. Even in The Tempest where he portrays the power of good victorious, it is only by magic that it conquers, not as a normal power in life. The expression he gives to good, though it reaches a high beauty, is less compelling, inevitable and realistic because he is expressing conditions which human consciousness is not yet fully able to realize. The intense expression of positive forces is made possible by a further development of human culture.

The universal character of King Lear by which we do not refer merely to its general application to all mankind but to the intensity and extensity of the forces at play, is indicated in many ways. The unbearable nature of Lear’s suffering, its prolonged and unrelieved continuity, the destruction of not merely family but of the deep emotional bonds between father and child, the disruption of an entire kingdom and Lear’s loss of his sanity, all point to the action of very powerful forces. The swiftness with which the issue leads to calamity is another indication. The King’s entire initiative is compressed into a few short moments and all else is but an inevitable working out of that initiative by life. Finally, even the forces of physical nature expressing themselves in the storm play a role in his suffering. The intensity of evil has saturated that plane of life and nature itself responds to the movement. On learning of Edgar’s betrayal, Gloucester gives a superstitious but nonetheless accurate expression to the conditions pertaining in the land.

These late eclipses in the sun and moon portend no good to us. Though the wisdom of nature can reason it thus and thus, yet nature finds itself scourg’d by the sequent effects: love cools, friendship falls off, brothers divide; in cities, mutinies; in countries, discord; in palaces, treason; and the bond crack’d, twixt son and father. (I.ii.100)

Bradley reflects this universality of the forces at work and their evil nature: “...these terrible forces bursting into monstrous life and flinging themselves upon those human beings who are weak and defenceless, partly from old age, but partly because they are human and lack the dreadful undivided energy of the beast.”4

When we recover from the shrinking of our senses at the horror which is presented, we discover that though evil is by far the most intense and penetrating force represented here, it is not either during the course of action or in the end a dominating influence against which all others are helpless. Rather we find that this evil has been released into the atmosphere by a chain of events it did not initiate and that after a brief but terrible period of destruction those who were its instruments are themselves destroyed. A still deeper insight into the life portrayed here will reveal that what we took to be a thoroughly pessimistic portrayal of evil, suffering and destruction contains within it a process of growing human consciousness and evolving social life.

II. The Division

As the story opens, the political conditions in Britain are precarious. Lear is an aging king, ‘four score and upward’, with three daughters and no male heir. Sooner or later power must be transferred to one or more of his daughters. The two eldest, Goneril and Regan, are sinister in nature and no division or assignment of power could satisfy them which left any authority in the hands of another or even with each other. Therefore, any arrangement was likely to be followed by civil war and a struggle for absolute power. Through no man’s fault or initiative, persons of extremely evil propensity were placed very close to power. This situation is an outer expression of the conditions of the social consciousness of the country. Until now Britain has been ruled by a powerful monarch who kept the country unified by his strength. There is no one of equal power to replace him. The solution which naturally suggests itself is a division into three parts, each to be ruled by a daughter and her husband and the national unity maintained by familial bonds. The change is necessitated by circumstance, but that circumstance reflects a compelling inner necessity. Something in the social consciousness is seeking to evolve beyond the limits of absolute power vested in a king. That evolution is what follows Lear’s renunciation of power. All the resistances it meets, all the destruction it releases are a preparation of the consciousness and a working out of that which opposes the social progress.

As King, Lear represents in himself the conditions of the country which identifies itself with him just as he identifies himself with it. He is a man of great vital power, a commander of men, not only by virtue of his position, but by his very nature. He is generous, open and unsuspicious, though too choleric, vain, obstinate, passionate and domineering to be simply called “good”. Beneath his vital personality of power lies an emotional being of exceptional depth and richness which, once released by madness, opens and universalises itself in sympathy with his fellowman. But as he is placed in life, Lear’s emotions are too much dominated by selfishness, vanity and egoism to express real love or affection.

As the country has come to a transition point, so has Lear. In his old age, he feels compelled to put aside the mantle of authority and spend his last days in the comfort and warmth of his youngest daughter Cordelia’s affection. There is in Lear an inner urge to renounce the satisfactions of power with which he is saturated and grow into the satisfactions of the heart. But there is also much in him which is so accustomed to the privileges and pleasures of absolute power that to give them up would itself seem like death. What takes place is a working out of the forces within his being, compelling and resisting a shift in consciousness from the vital to the emotional center.

Lear announces a contest in which the kingdom is to be divided among his three daughters and their husbands according to each one’s profession of love and devotion to him. Even the manner in which he expresses his intention forebodes a different outcome.

Meantime we shall express our darker purpose.

Give me the map there. Know that we have divided

In three our kingdom; and ‘tis our fast intent

To shake all cares and business from our age,

Conferring them on younger strengths, while we

Unburden’d crawl toward death. (I.i.35-40)

The scheme is intended not only to satisfy Lear’s desire for affection but his love of absolute power as well. At the very moment he proposes to relinquish the powers and privileges of his position, he employs them to elicit assurances of devotion. Instead of commanding, he wants to be persuaded with flattery. He is trying to raise himself from the plane of power where things are ordered and commanded to the plane of emotions where things can be given and received but never demanded. But