To what extent do you agree with Lear’s statement above? Discuss Lear’s role in the play and explore his journey from tyrant to humility and death.
Interpreting Lear’s own analysis of his situation, in that he is a ‘man more sinned against than sinning’ (Act 3, scene 2) is problematic. Up until this point, and throughout the play, the characterization of Lear has been particularly complex. He is, in fact a tragic hero who excites a variety of responses from an audience. Lear has been presented to the audience as neither wholly evil, in that it can be argued that he is suffering unjustly, nor wholly good, in that his sufferings are completely undeserved. Lear demonstrates both good and bad qualities to an extent, and it is possible to say that Lear is neither deserving nor undeserving of his sufferings in a straightforward way. This essay will therefore assess conflicting points of view relating to the original statement, and in analysing the evidence, will demonstrate the extent to which I agree with the statement.
It is possible to say that Lear is deserving of his sufferings to an extent, and that he is now reaping the rewards of his arrogance, irrationality and foolishness. One critic of the lay, William Rosen notes in “How Do We Judge King Lear?” in Criticism, Vol. XIV, No. 3, Summer, 1972, pp. 207-26.
‘Initially Lear is imperious, vain, and unwilling to consider any perspective other than his own’ Such qualities are presented clearly to the audience in the opening of the play, when it is particularly evident that Lear is only experiencing the sufferings that he has imposed upon himself through his own folly. In Act 1, Lear display’s many traits designed to alienate and shock the audience. In fact, Lear is the first character the audience are encouraged to dislike. Rash and arrogant, Lear behaves like a tyrannical dictator rather than a responsible King and Father.
As soon as the audience are introduced to Lear, he describes the absurd ‘love test’ he will carry out in order to divide up his kingdom. What should in essence be a difficult and serious task for the king is seemingly disregarded as Lear adopts a method more suitable for flattering his own ego than judging who can best govern the state. Lear questions ‘which of you shall say doth love us most?’ (Act 1, scene 1.) The audience witnesses Lear’s absurd and egotistical test whereby his daughter’s publicly lay claim as to who loves their father more in the hopes of gaining the largest proportion of land.
This interpretation of Lear is further reinforced by his alarming tendency to judge first and foremost on appearances and his utter blindness to reality. Fooled by his own sense of pride, he relishes Goneril and Regans’ superficial and elegant speeches. He is thrilled by Goneril’s exaggerated and profoundly ironic claim that she loves him ‘beyond what can be valued, rich or rare.’ (Act 1 scene 1) However, upon Cordelia’s honest, plain, but no less meaningful statements and refusal to participate, Lear loses his temper and behaves like a tyrant, behaving absurdly, arrogantly and irrationally.
He banishes not only Cordelia his favourite, and ironically the only daughter who holds any genuine love and compassion for him, but also Kent, his most loyal, trusted and previously most highly esteemed servant, in favour of those characters the audience can see, are so obviously corrupt. Because Cordelia would not conform to her Father’s ludicrous expectations he disowned her, simply on the grounds that his own pride suffered a blow, not because of any genuine malicious intentions. Lear behaved atrociously towards Cordelia, humiliating, insulting, and breaking the natural parental bonds with the only daughter who held any sort of genuine compassion for him. Such irrationality, Lear’s banishment and disownment of not one but two genuine and rational characters signify to the audience that such evils cannot go unchecked, and Lear will experience great sufferings for his foolish behaviour in the future. It is this behaviour in Scene 1, that we can say is Lear’s biggest sin.
It is quite possible, that the sister’s atrocious behaviour towards their father is to an extent, justified, by the way in which Lear has behaved toward them. It is evident that Lear has favoured Cordelia above Goneril and Regan since childhood. Such unfairness and neglect from Lear towards the sister’s has undoubtedly contributed to their own lack of loyalty towards their father, and subsequent treatment of him. Such a need to compete against the favourite child in order to gain love for their father have in fairness, have in essence, shaped the characters of Goneril and Regan. From childhood they perhaps have borne resentment and frustrations at the tendencies of Lear and it is arguable that the sister’s actions and ultimately Lear’s sufferings are the products of what he has himself created.
The sister’s, unable to obtain what should have been given unconditionally, not earned, which was their fathers love, in my opinion, have shaped their power hungry and ruthless natures. What in fact they demonstrate is perhaps not wholly unjustified, but profoundly human qualities in their attempts to gain wealth and power, and therefore it is questionable the extent to which we can condemn them for it. This point is further reinforced in Act 2 scene 4, when Lear, despairingly tries in vain to convince them of his need to keep his train, he reminds them of what they own him. ‘I gave you all.’ Which is swiftly undercut by Regan’s immediate response of ‘And in good time you gave it,’ signifying her obvious sense of dissatisfaction of her Fathers behaviour throughout her life.
When exploring Lear’s analysis that he is ‘more sinned against from sinning’ from this point of view is obviously flawed, in that Lear certainly has at times abused his power, neglected his children and too concerned with his own sense of importance, was blind to the reality of the situation. However true this may be, it is also possible to say that we can in fact, at times identify and sympathise with Lear as he progresses down the path of self discovery and rejuvenation. One critic, Arnold Kettle, in ‘Literature and Liberation: Selected essays,’ 1998 Is of the opinion that ‘Lear’s story is the progress from being a King to being a man, no more, no less.’ The following will explore this opinion further.
Lear evokes our sympathy when he shows his better qualities In Act 2. His hiring of Caius shows that Lear inspires loyalty, and his interaction with the Fool shows a softer, more tolerant side to his nature. We also admire, to an extent his determination to remain calm when he feels he is being wronged ‘I have perceived a most faint neglect of late which I have rather blamed as mine own jealous curiosity than as a very pretence and purpose of unkindness.’ (Act 1, Scene 4) Lear is willing to give Goneril the benefit of the doubt, but of course this calm side could possible be due to his awareness of his loss of power. In the next scene however, Lear realises his foolishness in his treatment of Cordelia.
With this new insight and growing troubles, our concern for Lear grows as we witness him continually being cheated and disrespected. We begin to share his outrage at Goneril and Regan, for their behaviour towards him. His arguments with Goneril in Scene 4 are not the egotistic ravings witnessed in scene one, but rather arguments of desperation and weakness, impotence rather than authority. We witness his genuine shock at his realisation of his foolishness which in turn evokes our pathos as well as encouraging us to condemn Goneril’s behaviour towards her father. Lear assesses the situation befittingly, stating that it is ‘sharper than a serpent’s tooth, to have a thankless child’ (Act 1, scene 4)
In the following Act we witness a further demise in the authority of Lear with the punishment of Caius in Act 2, scene 2. Lear has arrived at Gloucester’s castle and has discovered the the ‘shame’ (line 6) of finding Kent, his servant in stocks. This unnerves the King, and it is proof that he is continuing to be treated with contempt. Yet, when told the truth he is unwilling to believe that his daughter could be responsible for this crime against him. This blind faith in his daughter causes us to pity him all the more, as we know of her true intentions, which effectively mounts our dislike for Goneril and Regan all the more. What is revealed here is Regan and Cornwall’s malicious and cruel natures.
The mood and tone of this scene has shifted, indicating Lear’s increasing mental stability. Lear’s turmoil and cries for affection are evident to the audience, and so we feel all the more resentful at the heartlessness of Regan in her utter oblivion for her father’s suffering. Lear in this scene is presented to us as an old, desperate man. One in which we can easily feel pathos towards in his obvious defeat. When Cornwall and Regan arrive he is pitiful and troubled, ending his first speech with a cry out to his daughter “O Regan!” (line 132) Regan however, employs the same sharp tone that Goneril used effectively in Act 1 Scene 4. She tells her father he should just accept his age and failings of judgement. Regan is extremely firm in her advice to return to Goneril and beg her pardon.
Lear is astonished and is reduced to kneeling to her in begging “On my knees I beg that you’ll vouchsafe me raiment, bed and food.” Lear, previously powerful and respected, is now conveyed to us as a weak old man, forced to beg to his uncompassionate daughter for shelter. This sends a clear image to the audience of the Sisters, together youthful and powerful with ruthless ambition, are able combined to cause an unforeseen extent of trouble. Such strong power is juxtaposed upon their competing against the old and meagre Lear who stands alone, utterly powerless, reaping the consequences of his foolish act. What’s worse is that Lear is even further demeaned in that he is reduced to the use of flattery to try and win Regan’s acceptance “Her (Goneril’s) eyes are fierce but thine do comfort and not burn.”
But again, his words have no effect. The audience have the added insight and it is obvious to us of the falseness and utter hopelessness of Lear’s beliefs. These visual signs of his deterioration, his beggary, and reversion to flattery serve to shock the audience, provoke pity and remind us of his desperation, and so result in the complete rejection for the Sister’s principals. We detest Regan’s nerve in reducing her own father to such a blundering state, and we are given the impression of the conflict very much being a two against one situation. We deplore her all the more for her cold, detached and simply rude response to her Fathers’ desperate pleas for residence “Return you to my sister!” she uncompromisingly commands. We are aware now that Lear is utterly without hope with the combined forces of both his daughters working against him.
Goneril’s lack of concern prove the sister’s are oblivious to Lear’s agitation and suffering, and they embarrassingly for Lear, insist upon measuring out his servants. The sister’s continue, cruelly, to contradict Lear upon the issue of his knights, and successively, they symbolically strip Lear of everything that was once important to him, his power, his identity and his authority. Goneril questions him ‘what need you five and twenty, ten, or five?’ Which is followed swiftly by Regan’s ‘what need you one?’ Lear, devastated announces he is ‘a poor old man, as full of grief as age.’ Lear is reduced from a position of respect and authority to a penury beggar type figure which served to evoke a definite sense of pathos. Upon Lear’s departure, they cold, callously and symbolically lock the doors against Lear, creating a definite sense that they have turned their backs on their father.
They are neither moved nor concerned for their father’s well being nor by his agonised final speech. This shocking detachedness demonstrates their cruel desire to inflict suffering upon an old man. The action of this scene would have a profound effect upon the audience as they witness the cruelty he endures. Lear has been stripped of everything which separates him from humanity. No longer the grand, authoritive power figure of Act 1, Lear has been reduced in the extreme, his weaknesses exposed. Lear is, therefore no longer elevated above humanity and an audience has the ability to identify with his situation. Upon witnessing events and Lear’s exit into the storm, our sympathies are likely to rest and lie with the beleaguered King.
Such pathos is further fortified by Lear’s symbolic descent into madness where he undergoes an immense learning process as he treads along the path of self-discovery. Indeed, it was necessary for Lear to suffer in order to improve his understanding of himself and his society generally. It also appears that as the audience witness the deterioration and mounted suffering and internal turmoil of Lear in Act 3, their sympathy grows likewise. Ironically, it is evident that it is only when Lear turns mad that he can see the things he was blind to when he was sane. In scene 3, for the first time we witness Lear showing his compassionate nature when he considers the Fool’s comfort in the storm. ‘ Come on, my boy.
How dost, my boy? Art cold?’ No longer is Lear filled with a sense of his own self pity and importance, and his softer and more humane nature shines through at this point in his unselfish acts. Such changes serve to remove further the trappings associated with power and the audience can easily identify in favour and feel sympathy towards Lear’s own analysis of himself as a ‘poor, infirm, weak and despised old man.’ Whilst witnessing Lear’s obvious decent into madness in the storm, his inner turmoil and agonising sufferings evident we feel a definite sense of pathos towards him. At this point also we feel that indeed Lear’s past sins are becoming more and more insignificant in light of what he has had to endure. Therefore it is easy to agree or at least recognise the validity to Lear’s despairing proclamation in this scene, that he is indeed ‘a man more sinned against than sinning.’
Here, we are presented with a former King, a meagre, weak, old man stripped of power and humiliated by his own daughters, with no shelter in a terrible storm. What further offers proof to us that Lear is deserving of our sympathy is the fact that he has inspired two, obviously good and faithful servants who love him, and would follow him blindly to ensure his safety. Furthermore, Lear was loved genuinely and fiercely by Cordelia, who embodied goodness, purity, and Christian love. If Lear is capable of inspiring the love and respect of three characters such as these it is arguable that he must indeed have noble and admirable qualities.
Scene 4 demonstrates Lear’s process of self enlightenment further. Lear continues to act unselfishly, showing humility and putting the needs of The Fool, Kent and Poor Tom above his own, indicating he is learning compassion. This is further explored when Lear is able to recognise, and talk with a great degree of empathy and reverence about issues he paid little attention to previously, and in doing so realisied his priorities did not lie where they should have when he was King. In his madness, he considers topics such as the poor and homelessness and the corrupt justice system, coming to realise ‘O! I have ta’en too little care of this!’ More symbolically, Lear undergoes a terrible sense of self-purging through his interactions with Poor Tom and displays the stoicism of a true tragic hero.
The sense of pity we feel for Lear increases as he learns to pity others, despite his own immense sufferings. Lear learns to distinguish between appearances and reality, as symbolised by the removal of his clothes. This act is a far cry from the character we saw in Act 1. At this point all symbols of power have been removed and therefore there is no longer any sort of barriers between Lear and humanity. With this action, Lear is likely to have won the audiences respect and support. Indeed, it is evident that Lear emerges from this torment a much more humble, loving and attractive character.
In saying this, it is also important to recognise that there are some elements in this scene which make Lear less sympathetic. Although it is true that Lear undoubtedly gains a sense of enlightenment, it is questionable whether he gained a full sense of acceptance for his own guilt in the situation. Lear most certainly feels sorry for his treatment of Cordelia, but never for his foolish action of dividing his Kingdom on the basis of something so superficial as a love test. Similarly, Lear does not recognise that he, perhaps did not act at all times as a fair father should towards Goneril and Regan in his favouritism. In scenes 2 and 4, Lear’s revelations of humanity are punctuated with references to his own sufferings and words of vengeance, and it is evident that Lear still holds a great deal of resent and wrath.
‘Filial ingratitude! Is it not that this mouth should tear this hand for lifting food to it?’ Indeed he, perhaps rather selfishly assumes that Poor Tom’s madness must be as a result of daughters, unable to comprehend any other reason for madness. ‘Nothing could have subdued nature to such a lowness but unkind daughters.’ It is possible also to say that Lear is too obsessed with his own sufferings that he fails to recognise the validity or even possibility of anyone else’s, which comes through in his obvious vengefulness. Lear also, rather alarmingly, shifts the blame onto women and at times shows a definite sense of misogyny. Such actions portray Lear to be unaccepting of his own guilt and therefore less sympathetic to the audience.
However, with these elements taken into account, I am of the opinion that Lear undoubtedly does achieve in fact a sense of reverence and compassion to an extent that certainly was not present before. The fact that Lear is not perhaps completely reformed gives rise to a more realistic human journey, as it is certainly true that people do not gain understanding and change to become better people instantly. It is the fact that Lear’s path of enlightenment involves elements of resent and wrath which gives him qualities all the more human and therefore even more identifiable with.
Perhaps, the climax of Lear’s journey occurs in Act 5 through his reconciliation with Cordelia. The Lear we see in scene 3 is worlds apart from the Lear of previous scenes, and it is at this point that Lear reaches the summit of his own self understanding. At his meeting with Cordeila, he is unconcerned at going to prison so long as he can be with her to protect her. Lear shows the utmost reverence and respect towards her, ‘I’ll kneel down and ask thee for forgiveness.’ The tone of his speech is gentle and for the first time we receive he has a genuine sense of happiness, which is associated with his love for Cordelia, a human relationship as opposed to any material belongings, wealth or authority. Lear speaks calmly, rationally and surprisingly optimistically considering they will most likely be sent to prison.
The audience receives a definite sense form his behaviour that he would be content so long as he can be with his daughter, providing evidence that the Lear who placed importance upon materialistic pleasures is a thing of the past. Lear and Cordelia’s reconciliation is touching and we deplore any attempts to interfere with this bond, gaining respect for Lear all the more strongly for discovering the value of human relationships and family. He, for once is able to give and what’s more, recognise genuine love and care, which he realises individually is far more important than status. Lear, upon his total recognition has gained our support entirely at this point.
At the end of the play we feel the utmost sympathy for Lear upon the death of Cordelia. We realise agonisingly that it is just as Lear reached an understanding, the most important person was taken away from him. Our sympathy for the mourning King is furthered by his dellusionary state when, unable to accept her sudden death he imagines that she still lives. He claims that if ‘the feather stirs; she lives, it is a chance which does redeem all sorrows that I have ever felt.’ We see a bent, suffering old father who has had to go through the agony of losing his daughter just as he had gained a sense of understanding to really embrace the value of human relationships.
Lear’s total rejuvenation extracts our utmost pathos at the end. Whilst his sufferings would appear to have been in vain I am of the opinion that it was necessary for Lear to suffer as he did, to go through the experiences in order to come through a better and purer person. I feel that Lear was able to die with a sense of happiness which would have otherwise been impossible, in that he recognised his previous sins and seeked to rectify them, in making amends with Cordelia before it was too late. In this way, Lear was offered the opportunity to gain redemption through his suffering.
In conclusion, upon discussing the evidence, I can say that I agree with the original statement to an extent. Up to perhaps the point where Lear made his statement, that he was ‘more sinned against than sinning,’ I believed that Lear’s own sins still largely surmounted those he had suffered. In my opinion, Lear’s failure to recognise his own failings would be likely to heighten the audience’s perception of Lear’s darker, more vengeful nature, and so promote substantially less sympathy towards Lear. Yet as the action progressed, when Lear ceased his complaints of his own sufferings, recognised the validity of the troubles of others and in doing so gained a greater sense of compassion and understanding, I do in fact, identify with Lear’s analysis. As we witness the old King’s genuine sufferings our sympathy grows likewise.
Lear, in laying himself bare to us, removes all barriers which separates him from mankind. Lear is more or less exposing his own weaknesses to us the audience, and in doing so, creates a certain bond with the audience by putting himself in our care. Such an action gains our respect and we can now sympathise strongly with him. We can recognise and see for our v selves the wrongs committed against him, which in turn leads us to deplore such sins all the more strongly. Finally, upon my understanding and interpretation of the action of the play, I can say that Lear in fact suffers more sins than is responsible for, as indeed Lear’s sufferings were a direct result of calculated evil intentions, whereas his own sins were perhaps due to mere ignorance.