King Lear, by William Shakespeare, is a tragic tale of filial conflict, personal transformation, and loss. The story revolves around the King who foolishly alienates his only truly devoted daughter and realizes too late the true nature of his other two daughters. A major subplot involves the illegitimate son of Gloucester, Edmund, who plans to discredit his brother Edgar and betray his father. With these and other major characters in the play, Shakespeare clearly asserts that human nature is either entirely good, or entirely evil. Some characters experience a transformative phase, where by some trial or ordeal their nature is profoundly changed. We shall examine Shakespeare’s stand on human nature in King Lear by looking at specific characters in the play: Cordelia who is wholly good, Edmund who is wholly evil, and Lear whose nature is transformed by the realization of his folly and his descent into madness.
The play begins with Lear, an old king ready for retirement, preparing to divide the kingdom among his three daughters. Lear has his daughters compete for their inheritance by judging who can proclaim their love for him in the grandest possible fashion. Cordelia finds that she is unable to show her love with mere words:
“Cordelia. [Aside] What shall Cordelia speak? Love,
and be silent.”
Act I, scene i, lines 63-64.
Cordelia’s nature is such that she is unable to engage in even so forgivable a deception as to satisfy an old king’s vanity and pride, as we see again in the following quotation:
“Cordelia. [Aside] Then poor cordelia!
And not so, since I am sure my love’s
More ponderous than my tongue. “
Act I, Scene i, lines 78-80.
Cordelia clearly loves her father, and yet realizes that her honesty will not please him. Her nature is too good to allow even the slightest deviation from her morals. An impressive speech similar to her sisters’ would have prevented much tragedy, but Shakespeare has crafted Cordelia such that she could never consider such an act. Later in the play Cordelia, now banished for her honesty, still loves her father and displays great compassion and grief for him as we see in the following:
“Cordelia. O my dear father, restoration hang
Thy medicine on my lips, and let this kiss
Repair those violent harms that my two sisters
Have in reverence made.”
Act IV, Scene vii, lines 26-29.
Cordelia could be expected to display bitterness or even satisfaction at her father’s plight, which was his own doing. However, she still loves him, and does not fault him for the injustice he did her. Clearly, Shakespeare has crafted Cordelia as a character whose nature is entirely good, unblemished by any trace of evil throughout the entire play.
As an example of one of the wholly evil characters in the play, we shall turn to the subplot of Edmund’s betrayal of his father and brother. Edmund has devised a scheme to discredit his brother Edgar in the eyes of their father Gloucester. Edmund is fully aware of his evil nature, and revels in it as seen in the following quotation:
“Edmund. This is the excellent foppery of the world,
that when we are sick in fortune, often the surfeits
of our own behaviour, we make guilty of our disasters
the sun, the moon, and stars; as if we were
villains on necessity; fools by heavenly compulsion;
knaves, thieves, and treachers by spherical
predominance; drunkards, liars, and adulterers by
an enforced obedience of planetary influence; and
all that we are evil in, by a divine thrusting on.
… I should have been that I
am, had the maidenliest star in the firmament twinkled
on my bastardizing.”
Act I, scene ii, lines 127-137, 143-145.
Clearly, Edmund recognizes his own evil nature and decides to use it to his advantage. He mocks the notion of any kind of supernatural or divine influence over one’s destiny. Edgar must go into hiding because of Edmund’s deception, and later Edmund betrays Gloucester himself, naming him a traitor which results in Gloucester’s eyes being put out. Edmund feels not the slightest remorse for any of his actions. Later on, after the invading French army has been repelled, Lear and Cordelia have been taken captive and Edmund gives these chilling words to his captain:
“Edmund. Come hither captain; hark.
Take thou this note: go follow them to prison;
One step I have advanced thee; if thou dost
As this instructs thee, thou dost make thy way
To noble fortunes: know thou this, that men
Are as the time is: to be tender-minded
Does not become a sword: thy great employment
Will not bear question; either say thou’lt do’t,
Or thrive by other means.”
Act V, scene iii, lines 27-34.
Edmund has just instructed his captain to take Lear and Cordelia away to prison and to kill them, and make it look like suicide. Obviously there is no limit to the depths of Edmund’s evil. Shakespeare has created a perfect villain, with no remorse, no compassion, and who is universally despised by readers of the play. In the end, mortally wounded, Edmund does regret his actions and attempts to undo some of the hurt he has caused, and so perhaps we could also say Edmund is one of the characters who undergoes a transformation in the end. However, up until that point, Edmund remains a classic villain, whose human nature is entirely evil.
At the beginning of the play, we see Lear as a proud, vain, quick-tempered old king, not necessarily evil, but certainly not good. His folly leads to the alienation of his one truly loving daughter Cordelia, and the revelation that Regan and Goneril’s profession of love for him were mere empty words. Turned away by both Regan and Goneril, Lear rails against the storm and screams “I am a man more sinned against than sinning.” (Act III, scene ii, lines 56,57). Here Lear still believes he is the victim; and yet there is some admission on his part that he has some guilt in the matter. After the storm, when Lear’s madness has run its course, both he and Cordelia are taken prisoner by Albany’s army. We see the full effect of Lear’s transformation in his joy at his reunion with his daughter, uncaring of his status as a prisoner:
“He that parts us shall bring a brand from heaven,
And fire us hence like foxes. Wipe thine eyes;
The good years shall devour them, flesh and fell,
Ere they shall make us weep. We’ll see ’em starved first.”
Act V, scene iii lines 22-25
This new carefree Lear is certainly a far cry from the arrogant king we saw at the beginning of the play. His joy at reconciliation with his daughter outweighs any other concerns he might have. Shakespeare has transformed Lear in the reader’s eyes from a hateful old king into almost a grandfatherly, loving figure. It is not necessarily a transformation from evil into good; rather it is a transformation from blindness into sight.
In King Lear, we have seen that Shakespeare has carefully crafted the characters and clearly defined their human natures as being good or evil. There is no doubting the absolute goodness that Cordelia maintains throughout the play, and the sheer evil that Edmund displays until his plans are in ruins. In Lear we see a flawed figure who by misfortune and loss finally comes to revelation and personal transformation. In that sense, these characters are perfect tragic figures, perhaps not necessarily realistic but powerful and moving nonetheless.
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