Familial Themes With Shakespeare
’s King Lear Essay, Research Paper
Some of Shakespeare s most well known works are his tragedies. One of the reasons they are still read worldwide is Shakespeare s study of character and the relationships, which these characters are involved with. In order to get the full tragedy; the characters must represent basic morals or ideas. A common theme among a lot of Shakespeare works is the idea of family and what it means to be within and part of a family. This idea of a natural law, in which it deals with society s and family s expectation of what is to be given from parent to child as well as the bond which is made. In Shakespeare s King Lear, the two plots revolve around a parent s dealing with children who are not proper to what is expected of them.
King Lear is a story, which deals with the idea of familial expectation and the roles in which parents and children play. Lear s madness and his obsession with being praised blinded him to the child who was really the only one who loved him, Cordelia. The same with the Earl of Gloucester, he was blinded by his illegitimate child, Edmund, who set out to turn him away from his heir, Edgar. Within the story, these two children and a few loyal servants try to help and eventually try to save the King and Gloucester, but they are both too stubborn to recognize the goodness and true bond in these people. The story of King Lear deals with the turmoil of a chaotic world began by the boundaries of family and personal relationships being turn upside down.
The story opens with King Lear, ready to retire, calling his three daughters to the room. When everyone had assembled, Lear made the grand announcement that he would divide the kingdom three ways, a piece to each daughter. However, he added that the larger pieces were to go to the daughter who loved him most. He based this not upon their actions but the speech they gave. The first two daughters, Regan and Goneril, made a flowery and obviously fake speech in which Lear preened and awarded them their kingdoms. When it came to his third daughter, Cordelia, she answered, Unhappy that I am, I cannot heave my heart into my mouth. I love your majesty according to my bond, nor more nor less. (Abrams, pg. 893) In that she tells her father she loves him but will not participate in the game he had arranged for the dividing of his lands.
This starts the downfall of King Lear because in a fit of peevishness he banished Cordelia. He saw her not being able to make a speech to him as her not being able to love him. He took the superficialness of her two sisters as a testament to him more than all her actions and the words she chose to speak to him. In a fit of anger, Lear cast Cordelia out. The King of France recognized the goodness in her and agreed to marry her without a dowry, but as far as King Lear was concerned she was dead.
This poses the first question in the play about what the bond between parent and child is. Lear is following a false sense of values for what his children should mean to him, He is taking the non-essential for the essential. Cordelia was the favored daughter; Lear should have based her inheritance on that, not on her inability to make a speech to him proclaiming her love. (Spencer, pg. 143)
Shakespeare is studying the natural law of man. He takes what is expected and considered the norm and throws them off balance. Cordelia was the good daughter, but the other two sisters are the ones who win out and split the kingdom between them. In the imbalance, Lear is introduced to the unnaturalness of Regan and Goneril. The sisters violate the natural law in their behavior of their father. (Spencer, pg. 143) They may have made the speeches of love, but they were simply looking for what they can get as inheritance. As they take over their parts of the kingdom, both of them squabble with Lear over the taking care of him. They want him out of their lives and can not understand why the care is being forced upon them.
The other part of the story deals with the struggle with Edmund and Edgar, which is also breaking the rules of natural law. Unlike most subplots in Shakespeare, this plot parallels the story of Lear. It is not meant as a contrast but rather to compare the similar situations both men are dealing with. It involves Gloucester and his two sons, one considered good and one considered bad. Edmund, as the bastard son, knows that Edgar will always be favored. Edmund works out a scheme in which he convinces Gloucester that Edgar is trying to kill his own father. Gloucester sees the betrayal of his favored son as unnatural.
Throughout the play, Edgar plots to prove his innocence, but in the end, he is too late to save his father. Edmund shows his true nature by turning his own father in to gain the trust and admiration of Goneril and Albany. Goneril s nature is shown when she encourages her husband to poke out the other eye of Gloucester. She breaks the natural law by as a woman participating in the violence of the men. Gloucester, truly blinded, now can see what a fool he was for taking the word of Edmund over that of his true son, Edgar. While he is wandering helpless, Edgar rescues him and tries to bring him to safety.
The expectations of family are what is the root of the theme of King Lear. Children are expected to hold a certain amount of love and respect for their parents, especially in Shakespeare s time. Children were taught to honor and obey their parents. King Lear saw nothing wrong in asking his daughters who loved him the most because his children saying those things was status to him. It made him look like a wonderful father to have his children adore him so. In Cordelia, the king was slighted because it was a lack of respect for him and because in his own unnatural way, he wasn t acting as a father should.
King Lear s two daughters may have broken the bond between father and daughter, but Lear violated the trust of father to child. When he asked his daughter who loved him most, he broke the natural law of a parent treating all children equally. As a parent, he should have just given to his daughters equally, and not made them compete with one another. He broke the natural law as a father by judging his daughters on how they said the loved him.
Shakespeare takes the roles of parent-child relationships and has them turned asunder in King Lear. By having a father who will force his children to make declarations of love and his children playing along in the game, the one good sister is actually the one who gets hurt. The same happens in the sub-plot, Edgar really is the good son, however he is banished and wrongly accused because his father is willing to believe Edmund over him. The two true children are punished for their honesty. They refuse to give in and not follow their honor bound roles. With King Lear, Shakespeare takes what is expected and turns them around. A normal father would not be so quick to believe the embittered child or allow a favored daughter to be banished because she could not sing praises to him.
In the story, the word natural is used 40 times, one fifth of all the times it is used in Shakespeare. (Spencer, pg. 153) The overlying theme of the play is about what is natural and what isn t. The relationship and bond between parent and child is taken and put in an unnatural role. One assumes that a parent will know when a child is untrue and never expects anything in return. In King Lear both of these are the sources of all the problems. By abusing the bond between father and child, the world around shifts and everything is brought into turmoil.
The characters represent the archetypes for what is wrong within the bond. King Lear, in his madness, sees his daughters as status symbols and a balm to his aging ego. He wants them to praise him because it will be proof of his power. When it comes to the daughters, they don t feel the love for their father that he wants them to show. They say the speeches knowing it will gain them riches. They see it as an inconvenience, but also as a means to an end. Kent tries to explain the folly of it to the King when he banishes Cordelia. Kent ends up being banished as well. In the warped opening scene, the two people punished end up being the only two that spoke any truth at all. Even when the villains are punished, they suffer none. Edmund, Goneril, and Regan, right to the times of their deaths, are living the spoils of what they have gained through their treachery.
In the themes of King Lear, Shakespeare shows us what happens when the fine balance of parental bond is cut. In the end, Lear was alone, clutching the fallen figure of Cordelia in his arms. In the end, by breaking the natural law, Lear was left a bittered old man who lost what was most precious in his life.
1) Abrams, M. H. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. W. W. Norton and Co., New York, 1993.
2) Harbage, Alfred. Shakespeare: the Tragedies. Prentice-Hall, Inc., Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1964.
3) Heilman, Robert. Shakespeare: the Tragedies (New Perspective). Prentice-Hall, Inc., Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1984.
4) Spencer, Theodore. Shakespeare and the Nature of Man. The Macmillan Co., New York, 1961.