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The struggle for power constitutes a root reason for conflict in Shakespeare’s King Lear, wherein a royal family betrays their ties for the sake of authority and order. Chaotic events of the post-Medieval rule are perceived through the prism of jealousy, betrayal, and dishonesty. A brief overview of the plot, characters, and central themes of the play provides sufficient evidence to argue that Shakespeare aims at encouraging the readers to disregard the quest for power in favor of family ties.
Summary of the Plot
The story began when the aging King Lear decided to transfer power to his grown-up daughters, diving the kingdom in three equal proportions. As explained by Al Zoubi and Al Khamaiseh (2018), during the ceremony, Goneril and Regan, the oldest and the middle daughters, use flatter and insincere speech to prove their love to the father. Meanwhile, Cordelia, the youngest daughter, chooses to remain without power than be dishonest with Lear (Al Zoubi and Al Khamaiseh, 2018). When the king makes a decision to renounce Cordelia, concentrating the right to rule between Goneril and Regan, the new authority figures expel the man, forcing him to leave as an outcast. At the same time, Cordelia marries a French king and falls for an obligation to invade Britain with an intent to save her neglected parent. Despite Lear’s prior unfair treatment, the woman remains loyal to him, continuing to take care of the former ruler.
Another plotline concerns Edgar, an illegitimate son of the Earl of Gloucester. In exile, Edgar thrives on gaining power even in an illegal way, deciding to ally with Goneril and Regan to defeat Cordelia (Al Zoubi and Al Khamaiseh, 2018). Yet, the plan falls apart when Goneril becomes jealous of Edgard’s brother’s romantic feelings for her sister. Jealousy motivates her to poison the sibling and commit suicide afterward. Observing the chaos inside his former kingdom, Lear loses sanity, dying in Cordelia’s arms.
Analysis of Characters
A protagonist of the play, King Lear, is an elderly king of Britain. As stated by Hamilton (2017), over the course of his rule, everyone was faithful and obedient to his orders. However, the situation changes when the man passes power to his two daughters, Goneril and Regan (Hamilton, 2017). The wise king makes a fatal mistake, choosing flatter of the older children over the truthfulness of Cordelia, the youngest. In the end, Lear realizes his flaws, declaring “when we are born, we cry that we have come to this great stage of fools” (Shakespeare, 1999, p. 190). His realization, however, does not save him from insanity and death.
Shakespeare portrays Cordelia as an example of virtue and tenderness. The youngest daughter of Lear, she refuses to flatter his father during the ceremony of transferring power (Hamilton, 2017). Though the king renounces her royal status, Cordelia remains loyal to her father regardless of the unfair treatment. Through the words of his character, Shakespeare (1999, p.11) derives a golden rule for all children: “Obey you, love you, and most honor you. Half my love with him, half my care and duty.” In other words, kids should maintain respect for their parents while adhering to reasonable sense.
Goneril and Regan
Unlike Cordelia, Goneril and Regan do not share qualities of integrity and mildness. Lear’s older daughter, Goneril, uses flattery to trick her father into handing power to her during the ceremony (Hamilton, 2017). Hypocritically, she says, “Sir, I love you more than words can wield the matter; Dearer than eyesight, space, and liberty” (Shakespeare, 1999, p. 9). His generous gesture does not stop her, however, from insulting the king and expelling him afterward (Hamilton, 2017). Regan, the middle daughter, utilizes the same approach as Goneril to gain authority in the kingdom.
Jealousy, Greed, Infidelity
Betrayal has a central position in the story, happening inside the government and the family. As stated by Mahbub-ul-Alam (2016), Goneril and Regan’s infidelity and Edmund’s dishonesty with the officials allow the trio to gain control over the country. The group’s betrayal is fueled with jealousy and greed, which can be observed on different levels in the play. The greed for property and power, jealousy of Cordelia’s tender relationships with her father – all together contribute to the collective decision to seize the authority. Yet, in Shakespearean interpretation, the negative force, impregnated by evil, egocentric motifs, will be, sooner or later, combatted by the kindness, love, and respect.
Authority and Order
In Shakespeare’s play, the theme of authority is closely embedded both on the political and personal levels. On the one hand, King Lear represents the national ruler who commands obedience and respect from the citizens. On the other hand, the man is the head of the family who has unconditional love for his daughters. While the struggle for power is a common issue in the literature of the time, Shakespeare describes authority based on natural and divine order, wherein protagonists are morally weaker than villains (Mahbub-ul-Alam, 2016). With this example, the playwright tries to convey the idea that power is not always held in the hands of those who deserve it for their virtue and integrity.
Sanity and Madness
Another reoccurring theme in King Lear is the distinction between sanity and madness. At the beginning of the play, Lear maintains a reasonable sense despite being fooled by his daughters. Ironically, as the plot progresses, and the man discovers the truth, he loses sanity, stricken by grief and disappointment in his family. With this character’s transformation, Shakespeare underlines the imperfection of human nature, suggesting that sometimes the hardships of reality are unbearable to handle.
From my perspective, literary experts give little attention to Lear’s extreme expressions of vanity. A self-satisfied monarch is so obsessed with praise and flatter that he fails to recognize the hypocrisy in his daughters’ actions. Shakespeare’s King Lear should serve as a reminder for all government officials to disregard personal sentiment in favor of professionalism and work ethics. The author also depicts a harsh reality, wherein the strongest tie of all, family, falls apart in a quest for power. It is critical to realize that authority and greed are superficial, thus, able to bring only short-term happiness. On the contrary, qualities of compassion, honesty, and loyalty are everlasting.
In King Lear, Shakespeare narrates the story of a family whose members considered power to be more important than love, respect, and kindness. Themes of jealousy, greed, infidelity, and madness accompany the play, showing the wicked nature of humankind. With his work, the author attempts to encourage the readers to value virtue, honesty, and integrity instead of falling for superficial qualities of lust and authority.
Al Zoubi, S. M. and Al Khamaiseh, A. Z. (2018) ‘A critical study of William Shakespeare’s King Lear: plot and structure’, International Journal of English Language and Literary Studies, 8(1), pp. 14-18. doi: 10.18488/journal.23.2019.81.14.18
Hamilton, J. M. (2017) This contentious storm: an ecocritical and performance history of King Lear. London: Bloomsbury Publishing.
Mahbub-ul-Alam, A. (2016) ‘King Lear: amalgamation of good and evil visions’, Manarat International University Studies, 7(1), pp. 1-8. Available at: https://www.academia.edu/34527843/KING_LEAR_AMALGAMATION_OF_GOOD_AND_EVIL_VISIONS (Accessed: 15 September 2019).
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Shakespeare, W. (1999) King Lear. Edited by Stephen Orgel. New York: Penguin Books.