These affirmative actions are vividly seen throughout the play that is
highly infused with evil, immorality and perverted values. These
glimpses of hope seem to provide the reader with an underlying notion of
human goodness that remains present, throughout the lurking presence of
immorality and a lack of values. However, in the end it is questionable
if these are true revelations, and if the affirmative notions are
undermined, and thus less significant than the evil in which they are
In Act I Scene I, the first glimmer of hope is revealed in the play at a
time of madness, corruption and despair. In this scene, King Lear has
created an environment of competition that promotes false flattery,
among many other things as he divides his kingdom in relation to the
amount of love his daughters profess to him. King Lear in his
willfulness and arrogance does not see the error that he makes in
equating love with reward, in this competitive environment.
Cordelia is the only one of the three sisters who cannot fully
participate in the competition to gain her father's inheritance by
engaging in false flattery. Instead of trying to out due her sisters,
she merely describes her love in relation to their filial bond. Although
her father views this as a degrading insult and banishes her, it is
shown that through her filial bond, she loves her father with more depth
and sincerity than her eager, self absorbed sisters. Cordelia emerges
amid the moral depravity and social decay as one who is honest and true
to her beliefs.
In banishing his daughter Cordelia from the kingdom and taking away her
inheritance, King Lear is destroying the natural order of society. She
is left abandoned by both her father and her presumed suitor, Burgundy.
Yet Shakespeare rewards Cordelia's noble character with another suitor,
the King of France. Despite all that has occurred in relation to being
left destitute and friendless, France gladly accepts the estranged
Cordelia as his bride to be and applauds her virtues that he states,
make her rich. In introducing him to the play, Shakespeare provides the
reader with another positive creature amid the powerful and morally
deprived members of society.
The honesty and dedication of the Earl of Kent throughout King Lear, is
another example of affirmation to the reader that lasts throughout the
entirety of the play. He is introduced in Act 1 Scene 1 as he defends
Cordelia and accuses Lear of exhibiting a monumental folly in banishing
her. Although he approaches the discussion with a display of his
admiration and dedication to the King, he to is banished. Kent suffers
unrewarded for exhibiting morality at a time that embraced corrupt
values, and an unclear vision of the worlds order and humanity. Kent
sees clearly through this disillusioned society and unfortunately like
Cordelia, is punished harshly.
Act I Scenes iii and iv provide the reader with a sharp contrast between
the opposite states of morality and immorality. Shakespeare presents
these scenes back to back, to provide the reader with a definite grasp
of the values possessed by Kent. The first scene introduces the reader
to a terrible perversion of values. In the next scene however,
affirmation and goodness are described. In doing this one after the
other, Shakespeare allows the readers to gain insight on the immoral
acts embraced by society and the goodness embraced by Kent. He offers
renewal to the reader after scene iii, in that he suggests that not all
are as bad as one imagines after reading Act I scene iii.
In Act I Scene III, Goneril is instructing Oswolde to insult her father
King Lear, and to treat him disrespectfully in every way possible.
Goneril does this to begin to take the power away from her father, and
invest it in her own glory and authority. In shifting loyalty from King
Lear to Goneril, Oswolde is disrupting the defined order of loyalty and
servitude. Instead of embracing the traditional order of servitude,
Oswolde embraces the notion of power politics, where authority can
easily be given away. This scene is highly critical of the state of
societies moral values to each other, in familial relations and
political ones. It also begins to evoke the reader's emotions and
encourages them to sympathize with King Lear, as everyone seems to be
harshly turning against him.
The next scene reveals the opposite event occurring, a willing
acceptance of King Lear’s authority, regardless of selfish attempts to
gain power. Faithful Kent, though previously banished by Lear, has
returned in disguise to offer his servitude. In Kent’s opinion, the
authority of King Lear is seen in his personhood, in his face. Kent is a
servant who is willing to serve his master despite political power
struggles. Kent represents goodness in society and is contrasted sharply
with Oswolde in the previous scene. This contrast shown from one scene
to the next is used effectively by Shakespeare to reveal the competing
forces present throughout King Lear.
This example is affirming because it reveals that a noble man like Kent
exists in this society, which is seemingly void of such attributions.
However, the opposite message is also portrayed. This can be seen in the
unsettling view that describes the result of being an admirable and
humane person, in a society with power in the hands of a morally divest
circle of individuals.
Thus far, being an admirable character like that of Kent or Cordelia has
lead to them to face estrangement from society. It has also disrupted
the preestablished natural and societal order which inevitably will
result in chaos. These examples of affirming scenes and characters are
purposely inserted by Shakespeare into this play. This is because they
offer encouragement to the reader with regards to the morale of society.
However, they appear less significant than the overwhelming presence of
decay and malice in society. It is as if while these positive notions
are seen throughout the play, they also are constantly undermined by
those evil characters who have the most power.
In Act III-Scene IV Shakespeare provides the reader with an excellent
view of how Shakespeare is able to contradict and undermine good and bad
acts throughout society. This scene is the epitome of the evil and sin
adapted by most of the characters throughout King Lear. It is here that
Gloucester’s eyes are gauged out by Cornwall, in the presence of Goneril
and Regan. This atrocity represents the moral decay that these
characters espouse to. In this scene however, a glimmer of hope can be
found when one of Cornwall’s own servants, cries out for his master to
stop, and draws his sword in Gloucester's defense. However, he is
quickly killed by Goneril, and Gloucester's other eye proceeds to be
Although this servant represents a strive toward decency amid a
malevolent society, he remains a helpless victim to their heinous acts.
He is unable to protect Gloucester from their wickedness and ends up
losing his own life as well. Although Shakespeare again offers a glimpse
of promise, evil again undermines it’s efforts. The good are not
rewarded for their principles in this incident, as in the situations of
Cordelia and Kent.
In his blindness, Gloucester is able to experience a sense of rebirth in
that he gains a new and much more clear insight of the world.
Previously, he had denounced his son Edgar as villainous do to the
intentional set up by Edmund, in an attempt to gain the inheritance. It
is while becoming blind that Gloucester learns the truth of the
deception. This may give the act of becoming blind an affirmative
action. However, it is this act that also leads Gloucester into another
engagement of deceit.
As Edgar’s character is in disguise, he becomes the moral voice
throughout the play. He encourages community and for people not to
suffer alone. He sees the intensity of the situation and often does not
want to be involved in society. In Act IV Scene I, Edgar’s speech says
that it is better to live in the real world and know ones relations,
than it is to be false flattered or tricked, “Yet better thus, and known
to be contemned/Than still contemned and flattered”(p 939 lines 1- 2).
After saying these lines, he begins to get happy, and expects that
things will get better.
Edgar’s positive attitude is reflective of hope in society and it’s
conditions. However, Shakespeare undermines this when Edgar goes against
his own words and deceits his father. In Scene XI, Edgar fakes
Gloucester’s death to provide his father with a miracle. He does this in
an attempt to encourage his father with strength and happiness. Yet this
is undermined in the fact that Edmund tricked Gloucester to begin with,
and that delusion is what lead Edgar to his initial despair. Thus a
sense of rebirth and renewal is seen in this scene, as Gloucester
believes in the miracle and may have gained a sense of worth. Yet
undermining all of this positive renewal and affirmation, is the
disturbing fact of its illegitimacy.
Lear endures an obvious sense of rebirth throughout King Lear. The
rebirth of King Lear into the realities of the world is complemented by
Gloucester who makes a moral decision to aid Lear, and find him amid the
storm. It is in this storm that Lear is left to gradually become mad, do
to the dispossession of power and lack of respect he endures. The cause
of this process is initiated with the outright betrayal of both Regan
and Goneril. As they strip him of his possessions both mentally and
literally, he begins to gain a new insight of the world.
Lear realizes the flaws of his character and the unjust human suffering
he promoted throughout his life as king. When faced with Edgar who is
disguised as a beggar, Lear embraces morality and empathy as he tears
off his clothes and offers his sympathetic speech concerning those “poor
naked Wretches” he has ignored for so long. King Lear seems to be stuck
between sympathy for Tom(Edgar) and terror regarding his own character.
As Shakespeare offers the rebirth of King Lear into morality and a world
embracing human sympathy, he generates another sense of affirmation in
the play. But as is later revealed, this new found knowledge may merely
be a mock revelation.
In the end of this tragedy, King Lear may not be as enlightened as one
had thought. He displays several relapses into his previous mindset as
King. This can be seen in his relations with Gloucester after he has
experienced what he thought to be a “miraculous” salvation from God.
Lear appears shortly after and begins to speak. His first words were, “I
am the king himself”(p 949, line 83) After previously denouncing this
role that is at the root of moral decay, and dismissing such
ornamentation associated with that position, he comes back around to
reestablish his natural right. Thus, his previous renewal and moral
insight are undermined by this declaration. He also goes on to offer
money to Gloucester, reaffirming old values of servitude. In suggesting
that money gives way to power and the ability to do anything desired, he
critiques his own role.
Another example of Lear regressing in morality may be seen in relation
to his reuniting with Cordelia. He implies that he wants a reduced
kingdom where he has all that he wants:
No, no, no, no! Come, let’s away to prison.
We two alone will sing like birds I’ the cage . . .
..So, we’ll live,
And pray, and sing, and tell of old tales, and laugh . . .
Talk of court news; and we’ll talk with them too . . . (p 959 lines
Here, Lear says he want her love again, like he did in Act I Scene I. He
is disregarding the fact that Cordelia has other bonds that she is
devoted to, besides her father. He is unable to grasp the fact that she
has established her own life without him. While this is a romantic act,
it is oddly inappropriate, as he is reduced to a similar folly as in Act
I Scene I. This implies that perhaps Lear has not learned anything at
all but instead, lacks power to carry through his desires.
The ending offers testament to the fact that throughout King Lear the
losses outweigh the gains. Cordelia was depicted by Shakespeare as what
may be considered a light in the darkness. The fact that she dies in the
end seems to take away any of the hope the reader of this tragedy may
have begun to assert. The fact that Lear dies with the illusion that
Cordelia is alive, reveals that he dies with the mistake of hope. It is
as if her death is the final symbol representing the triumph of
immorality and the fact that the tragedy in this case, outweighs the
The ending of King Lear is extremely intense and depressing. The play
ends with the deaths of both bad and good characters. Although the play
was infused with notions of hope and morality, in the end these glimpses
were short lived, and may have been merely illusions and mock
revelations. They offer no true affirmation on the status of society.
This dismay is emphasized with the fact that the kingdom is given to
Edgar and Kent; dividing the kingdom is how all of the trouble began to
start with. Thus there is no new order and no clear direction for
society, at the end of what proves to be a devastating tragedy.
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