Many scholars consider ‘King Lear’ one of Shakespeare’s greatest plays. This is because of its power; it tackles all issues and is still relevant today to the extent that it has been called “Shakespeare’s play for the 20th century”. ‘King Lear’ is cathartic and a discouragingly accurate portrayal of human nature. It shows us altruism, selfishness, love, hate, stupidity and understanding. It questions fate, the gods, our purpose and how, why and what human nature is. It is this, the sheer amount, and power of its themes that explain why ‘King Lear’ is held by so many scholars, past and present, in such high regard. However, whether the play has an optimistic or pessimistic outlook is a question that has been debated over the centuries.
Whether the play is optimistic or pessimistic is of great importance to the meaning of the play as a whole, as the message it conveys hinges on whether the play is hopeful or disparagingly tragic. Is Shakespeare trying to say that life is completely pointless? That we are simply “like flies to wanton boys, they kill us for their sport.” Alternatively, is he trying to show us that there is a point to live; that we must learn, love, and try to live honourably and decently?
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There are two predominant schools of thought in the dispute over whether the play is optimistic or pessimistic. These are represented both in the play and in the opinions of critics. In general, critics of the late 20th century find the play profoundly pessimistic and earlier critics find the play optimistic.
The pessimistic opinion on the play argues that, in ‘King Lear’, human nature is portrayed as being essentially bad and that the play is attempting to say that there is no purpose to life. Gonerill, Regan and Edmund represent this immoral, evil, quality to human nature. Edmund refers to nature many times throughout the play:
“Thou, nature, art my goddess; to thy law
My services are bound. Wherefore should I
Stand in the way of custom, and permit
The curiosity of nations to deprive me…”
This shows how Edmund wants to disrupt the order – imposed by man – by which he is made to suffer because of his illegitimacy. This could be considered pessimistic, as regards our nature, in two ways. Firstly, Edmund’s desire to create chaos, for him to “thrive”, “grow” and “prosper” could show how nature is essentially selfish, as all he seeks is personal gain. However, this could be explained by Edmund’s lack of love in his youth due to his illegitimacy, but I don’t think that Edmund is a psychological study into his lack of a father figure and the damage caused to him by it, merely a symbol for evil. Secondly, Shakespeare could be commenting on the strictness of the order, the ‘nature’ that we have created, that caused the audience to think that somebody was evil purely because they were born illegitimately.
This same selfishness is shown through the actions of Gonerill and Regan, who plot to “do something in th’heat” to take advantage of their father’s disposition. They don’t love their father with the bond that should exist between parent and child. Here we see the two different types of nature. There is this bad nature, which is selfish, greedy and single-minded. This type of nature is natural in the Celtic, matriarchal manner, where witchcraft and the “fairies and gods/ Prosper it with thee”(4.6.29-30).
Yet, on the other hand, there is the nature that we have created, the, what would have been called Roman style ‘nature’, in Lear’s pagan Britain, where order exists in a male-dominated society. By living by this form of nature, man is loving and generous and “the bond” exists. Cordelia, Kent, Edgar, and Lear represent this nature. Cordelia is a Christ-like figure that represents pure good, in opposition to Edmund. Lear constantly tries to understand how the matriarchal, Celtic nature, that he would call unnatural, assumed power. The shift in power, the order, nature, from men to women; Roman to Celtic; good to bad; is what plunges the country into chaos and Lear into madness. However, Lear’s madness is also a result of the way in which, by virtue of the fact that he abdicated and in doing so rebelled against the order and the chain-of-being, it his fault that the country is in chaos. As Danby put it, “rebellion against this law is rebellion against ones’ self, loss of all nature and produces a lapse into chaos”. The play’s optimism depends on whether it displays predominantly the subsequent learning by Lear, and Gloucester and the eventual triumph of Cordelia over her sisters or the bad side of human nature.
In the first Act, Cordelia, and Edgar, are forced away from home; this is a physical severance of the “bond”. However, Shakespeare shows us how love and loyalty are eventually rewarded; Cordelia and Lear reconcile and die happily and Edgar receives the kingship. In other words: ‘good’ nature defeats ‘bad’ nature. Critics such as A.C Bradley see this as being optimistic; that the human spirit is essentially good. Others, such as J.Stampfer don’t recognise this as being optimistic, but instead, observe primarily the fact that Lear and Cordelia die. His sentiments are echoed in the play. He says that there is no justice in Lear dying immediately after his complete penance. He, therefore, believes that complete penance is neither worthwhile nor possible and that we are simply “like flies to wanton boys”. This has led Stampfer and other 20th century critics have said that nature is therefore ruthless.
“Why should a dog, a horse, a rat have life,
And thou no breath at all”
Stampfer takes this to show how iniquitous life is. He thinks that the fact that Cordelia dies immediately after the restoration of order and the apology of her father is unfair on them both. The gods unfairly deal the pain felt by Lear, shown above, to him, as, if the gods were good he would live a long life with Cordelia by his side. This shows that nature can take away life at any moment. It is this seemingly unnecessary pain, combined with the subsequent abrupt death of Lear himself, which causes Stampfer to believe that the penance of Lear and the pain he went through, and the loyalty shown by Cordelia isn’t rewarded and life and loyalty are therefore meaningless. This would be a profoundly pessimistic view of the play, and one that I can’t agree with. Even if “man’s life is as cheap as beasts” and we are “like flies to wanton boys” life hasn’t become meaningless, indeed, Lear and Cordelia are happy at the end of the play, even as prisoners, and their promulgations of love and reconciliation are, in my opinion, more powerful and important than the unfortunate reality that this happiness is short-lived.
“We two alone will sing like birds i’the cage;…
…And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh
At gilded butterflies…”
This shows the joy shared between Cordelia and Lear after their reconciliation and after Lear realised he is “a very foolish fond old man” who was not in “perfect mind”. This understanding brought fulfilment to Lear, and in my opinion, this is extremely optimistic in that it shows us that we can all learn. Also, Lear’s untimely death almost immediately after his penance, far from demonstrating unfairness of nature, shows that it is never to late to live honourably and that dying happily and with honour is more important, and rewarding, than the personal gain sought by Edmund, Gonerill and Regan, who of course die unhappily and unfulfilled, as they are too greedy and selfish.
Having said this, in Act 5 Sc 3 Edmund realises that he has caused a lot of damage and seeks forgiveness for it.
“I pant life; some good I mean to do
Despite mine own nature.”
I think that this is optimistic as it shows that a person can change and that even though Edmund wrongs he can at least seek penance for his mistakes. Edmund’s soliloquies earlier in the play showed his selfish, Celtic, nature, but here we see how he renounces that nature and admits that it brought no good and also that his ‘unnatural’ relationships with Gonerill and Regan caused “all three to marry in an instant”. It could be said that Edmund only seeks to do good on his deathbed to attempt to go to heaven and, when taking into account his behaviour throughout the play it quite easily be argued that he is lying when he attempts to do good in order to be acknowledged as good by God and the court, as he realises that his selfish plans have failed. The act of penance would therefore become selfish if he is only attempting to seem ‘good’ and ‘natural’ before he dies to secure a place in heaven. This would be pessimistic, as it would show that Edmund couldn’t acknowledge that his nature is wrong and that he has caused unnecessary harm. However, I think that it would be cynical to suggest that Edmund is lying, and, given that the play is symbolic and not a psychological study, I believe, that this is another example of optimism in the play and an attempt by Shakespeare to show that people can change.
In Act I Scene I, Cordelia refuses to take part in the ‘love-test’, and although the wisdom of her “nothing” is often called into doubt, the point is that she wouldn’t flatter Lear, while her sisters flatter and praise him in an attempt to deceive him.
“No less than life, with grace, health, beauty, honour,
As much as child e’er loved a father found…”
This flattery is natural to them, yet unnatural to Lear, who cannot fathom any other motive for their words. Their declarations of affection are ‘rhetorical constructions’ designed to manipulate and abuse Lear’s inability to contemplate any other context or motive to the typical Roman one by which he lives. Through “nothing” Cordelia is the only one of his daughters who reveals her true nature to him, even though that is not the same as Lear’s nature, in that she realises the matriarchal nature of her sisters and is prepared to use the powers that her sisters have to restore order. She answers “nothing” because she has no ambition to wield a sword like her sisters. Her ‘Celtic’ nature is shown late and used for good – in order to restore order.
Thy medicine on my lips, and let this kiss
Repair those violent harms that my two sisters
Have in thy reverence made!”
This could be considered a Celtic, ‘white magic’, way of ‘awakening’ her father from his madness. This shows how Cordelia uses her sisters’ nature to restore order. I see this as being optimistic, despite the fact that for a lot of the play good is banished and chaos rules; Gloucester’s trial is called justice while the trial in the hut staged by Lear comes much closer to true justice; the weather is chaotic; women reign and begin to commandeer activities that are symbolically and traditionally performed by men, like Gloucester himself, such as swordsmanship (3.7. 79). Ruthlessness and selfishness, for a while, defeat truth and loyalty. This has been interpreted as being pessimistic and it could be thought that Shakespeare is trying to demonstrate to the audience that everyone makes mistakes, and we are all susceptible to the ‘blindness’ that caused Lear’s and Gloucester’s downfall. However, this would be a pessimistic view of the play. In my opinion, the point of the play isn’t to demonstrate the man’s ability to destroy himself – shown in Lear’s abdication, Gloucester’s adultery and the way Gonerill, Regan and Edmond end up destroying each other in a web of lust and vice – but it is optimistic, more about the fact that we can learn and good nature can prevail.
This learning is shown through Gloucester and Lear; they both realize that they have been deceived by their children and that they have done wrong themselves and begin to see what life is about, particularly ironic, as Gloucester is blind –“Your eyes are in a heavy case, your purse in a light; yet you see how this world goes.”
Lear learns that he was wrong in abdicating and that he should have been content to ‘play’ his role as king.
“When we are born we cry that we are come
To this great stage of fools.”
This is the moment Lear understands that he was wrong in abdicating and that he shouldn’t have tried to be anything less thanking in the same way that Edmund shouldn’t have aspired to inherit Gloucester’s land. The fact that they do repent and learn is surely far more optimistic than the fact they committed a crime in the first place is pessimistic. After all, if a mistake were irrevocable, we would all be at fault and all our lives would be lived in vain, which is why I don’t think Shakespeare intended the play to be pessimistic.
In my opinion, the mere existence of Cordelia and Kent is optimistic. Earlier I mentioned how Cordelia is unconsciously inspired by Christ from Christian theology. Her words, “O dear father, / It is thy business that I go about” is echoed by Luke 2:49. Many other comments about her have a Christ-like, pureness about them. “Most choice, forsaken; and most loved despised”. Kent’s loyalty is also optimistic in its mere existence, as in 5.3 he still says “I have a journey, sir, shortly to go / My master calls me, I must not say no.” The love and loyalty shown by both Kent and Cordelia towards Lear are, in my opinion, optimistic by their mere existence, and the fact that their good is the force that eventually prevails makes it even more optimistic.
Stampfer sees the play as being about the ossification of the human spirit, the stupidity of Lear, the manipulation of human behaviour to satisfy ourselves, “mans nexus of appetites” and a demonstration of how “unforgiving” nature is. I don’t agree with Stampfer and see the play as about the endurance of the human spirit, the fact that we can all learn and seek penance for the mistakes, which we undoubtedly make. I agree further with Bradley when he says, about ‘King Lear’, that “It’s the final and total result is one which pity and terror are so blended with a sense of law and beauty that we feel, at last, not depression, and much less despair, but a consciousness of greatness in pain, and of solemnity in the mystery we cannot fathom.” I have the same opinion as Bradley here, as I see the play as being optimistic. However, for me, the simple existence of such characters as Cordelia is optimistic as I feel the play demonstrates that as long as such characters exist and subsist than we can live in hope of a better society.
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