Throughout history novelists and playwrights have to create dysfunctional families. These families lead tragic lives. Within these families, there are both internal and external battles to be dealt with. In William Shakespeare’s King Lear and Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night, the authors reveal truly dysfunctional families. In these plays, both authors portray the problems and between each member of the family and the consequences, the problems will have.
In King Lear there are two families that display dysfunctions, the Lear family and the Gloucester family. Within the two families, there are many dysfunctions. In King Lear there are both major and minor dysfunctions between both the Lear family and the Gloucester family. One of the major dysfunctions in both families is filial ingratitude. Within this dysfunction is a theme of good versus evil. The minor dysfunctions of King Lear are closely related to the major dysfunction of filial ingratitude. The minor dysfunctions of the play are the tragic disrespect of authority and the pain of misjudgment.
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In the Lear family, the theme of filial ingratitude is shown primarily by the attitudes of Lear’s elder daughters. The play primarily deals with the insanity of King Lear after he divides his kingdom between his elder daughters, Goneril and Regan. This decision was based on how much each one loved him. After he had divided his kingdom, he would spend half of his time with Goneril and the other half with Regan. His youngest daughter, Cordelia, was banished from the kingdom after she told Lear “Happily, when I shall wed, That lord whose hand must take my plight shall carry Half my love with him, half my care and duty. Sure I shall never marry like my sisters, to love my father all.” (I, I, 104-110) Unfortunately, his decisions to divide his kingdom and to banish his daughter are the cause of his downfall and the downfall for the rest of all his family.
Lear decision created most of the dysfunctions within his family. With his kingdom divided between his two eldest daughters, Lear no longer had power. Both Goneril and Regan realized this and they both took advantage of Lear. When Lear would stay with his daughters, they would disregard his orders and treated him unfairly. They both do not want his presence and they kick him out of their castle. This is shown when Goneril states: “Put on what weary negligence you please, you and your fellows. I’d have it come to question. If he distastes it, let him to my sister, whose mind and mine I know in that are one, not to be overruled.” (I, iv, 13-17)
Within the Lear family, there is a constant battle between the three sisters. Not only do Goneril and Regan fight for land, but they also fight for Edmund’s, Gloucester’s illegitimate son, love. Goneril and Regan despised each other so much that they plot each other’s death. Cordelia, who married the King of France, had also waged a war between France and England. Her goal is to stop her two evil sisters and to restore Lear to the throne.
However, all of the members of the Lear family died or were killed in the final act of the play. Regan and Goneril quarrelled over Edmund’s love in the final scenes of the play but Regan dies from poisoned administered by Goneril. After she poisoned Regan Goneril subsequently stabs herself. Lear is shown dragging Cordelia’s body and announces that he had killed the man who hanged her. In his immense heartbreak, he too dies. Before he dies Lear said, “Do you see this? Look on her! look! her lips! Look there, look there!” (V, iii, 72-73)
In the Gloucester family, filial ingratitude is shown by the attitude of Edmund. Edmund is the illegitimate son of Gloucester. Throughout the play, Edmund is trying to steal his father’s royal position and his power. In order to do this, he makes it seem like his brother, Edgar, was responsible. Edmund sets his plan in motion by saying, “Well then, legitimate Edgar, I must have your land. Our father’s love is to the bastard Edmund as to the legitimate. The fine word ‘legitimate’! Well, my legitimate, if this letter speed And my invention thrive, Edmund, the base shall top the legitimate; I grow; I prosper. Now, gods, stand up for bastards.” (I, ii, 15-22)
In the final scene of the play, the theme of good against evil is shown between Edgar and Edmund. With the rivalry of Regan and Goneril, Regan proclaims that she and Edmund are partners. This angers Goneril and she becomes extremely jealous. Albany, Goneril’s husband, responds with a claim of treason and challenges Edmund to duel a knight. The herald sounds the trumpet three times and a disguised Edgar appears to fight Edmund. Edmund then falls and admits his guilt. At this point Edgar reveals himself. Edgar then explains that he has been taking care of his ill father until his death. Moments later, Edgar dies but not before he says, “Quickly sent (be brief In’t) to the castle; for my writ Is on the life of Lear and Cordelia. Nay, send in time.” (V, iii, 291-294) The play ends with Edgar refusing Albany’s offer of ruling the kingdom. He feels that someone ruling a kingdom in chaos, and is not ready, will lead to more chaos.
In Long Day’s Journey Into Night dysfunctions constantly occur throughout the play. The play focuses on the Tyrone family, whose once-close family has deteriorated over the years. There are many dysfunctions in the play: Mary’s morphine addiction; Tyrone, Jamie, and Edmunds’ alcoholism; Tyrone’s stinginess; the sons’ attitude toward work and money; and many others. As the play is set, Tyrone and Mary are ageing. They always hoped that their sons would achieve great things. However, their hope begins to be replaced by resigned despair.
This play creates a world in which communication has broken down. One of the dysfunctions in the play is the characters inability to communicate despite their constant fighting. For instance, the men often fight amongst themselves over Mary’s addiction but no one is willing to confront her directly. Instead, they allow her to lie to herself about her own addiction and about Edmund’s illness of consumption. This is shown in the first act when Tyrone tells Jamie, “You’re a fine lukehead! Haven’t you any sense? The one thing to avoid saying that would get her more upset over Edmund.” (O’Neill 29) Edmund and Jamie do not communicate with each other well until the last act. This is when Jamie confesses his own jealousy of Edmund and his desire to see him fail. This is shown when he tells Edmund, “I’ve been a rotten bad influence. And worst of it is, I did it on purpose.” (O’Neill 165) Tyrone, likewise, can only criticize his sons but his stubborn nature will not allow him to accept criticism. All the characters have problems with one other but they have trouble doing so in a constructive fashion.
Most of the problems emerged from the past. Mary in particular cannot forget the past and all the dreams she once had of being a nun or a pianist. In the final act she tells the men, “I play so badly now. I’m all out of practice. Sister Theresa will give me a dreadful scolding.” (O’Neill 171) Tyrone too has always had high hopes for Jamie, who has been a continual disappointment. This is shown in the first act when Tyron tells Jamie, “I’ve lost all hope in you will ever change yours. You dare tell me what I can afford? You’ve never known the value of a dollar and never will! You’ve never saved a dollar in your life!” (O’Neill 31) All the conflict and the problems from the past cannot be forgotten and they are relived day after day. In the play, the Tyrones are not making progress of becoming better but rather continually sliding into despair. As a result, remain bound to a past that they can neither forget nor forgive.
Within both plays, there are many similarities in dysfunctions between the three families. For example, filial ingratitude is clearly shown in all three families. Also, insanity is shown between Lear and Mary Tyrone. In the Lear family and the Gloucester family, the battle of good and evil between the siblings occur. In the Lear family, Cordelia plays the part of the “good” sibling while Regan and Goneril play the parts of the “evil” siblings. In the Gloucester family, it is Edgar who plays the part of the “good” sibling while Edgar plays the “evil” sibling.
There are also many differences in dysfunctions between the three families. For example, in the Lear family and the Gloucester family, their dysfunctions led to their downfall and their deaths. The Tyrone family’s dysfunctions also led to their downfall. However, their dysfunctions lead to more dysfunctions because their life is a continuing cycle.
There are many dysfunctions in the Lear, the Gloucester, and the Tyrone families. Within each family, there is both an internal and external battle. These plays reveal dysfunctions at their peak. They also reveal the consequences that each dysfunction brings. Usually, in the end, the families will continue to lead dysfunctional life and they will have tragic outcomes.
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