“Every person important to the action is thrust into an unnatural way of life.” In King Lear, written by William Shakespeare, this quote was very accurate. King Lear and Gloucester, both main characters in the play, were thrust into a life that was unfamiliar and caused both to react in different ways.
King Lear was the protagonist in the play. The main theme of King Lear was entirely based on the way Lear was forced to endure a horrific life because of his two daughters, Goneril and Regan, who cast their father aside in order to obtain the power they craved. There are two ways in which Lear was forced to live a life to which he was not accustomed. Lear became physically and emotionally distraught, both cases directly linked to Goneril’s and Regan’s selfishness.
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Goneril and Regan knew that their father was going senile and therefore took this opportunity to worsen his condition. When Lear went to stay with Goneril, she did not speak to him and pretended she was ill. “ I will not speak with him. Say I am sick.” (I/iii/9) She then forced him to go to Regan’s house. However, when he arrived, she too had left, which caused him to feel alone. Lear became his daughters’ toy, as they passed him back and forth as if he was their ball in a game of catch.
Not only did Lear’s daughters emotionally hurt him, but they physically harmed him as well. Lear was a king, and therefore had lived his entire life with the finest accommodations. Goneril and Regan had forced Lear in to a life he was not used to. On a night where “bleak winds/ Do scorely ruffle.” (II/iv/337-338), Goneril and Regan “Shut up your [Gloucester’s] doors.” (II/iv/342) and left Lear out in the storm. The King, who was used to elaborate castles and large chambers, was forced to spend a night as a poor citizen, searching for shelter from the cold.
Similarly to the way that Goneril and Regan caused Lear to suffer, they also forced Gloucester to live in a way in which he was unaccustomed. Gloucester was very loyal to Lear, therefore he took Lear’s side in the civil battle between Lear and his daughters. For punishment, Lear’s daughters “Pluck[ed] out his eyes.” (III/vii/5) Gloucester must now live in a world that is both unfamiliar and unkind. The wrongs that Goneril and Regan committed towards their father and Gloucester were both extremely cruel.
The way in which Lear and Gloucester coped with their situations was exceedingly different. Because Lear was a very proud and noble man; he would not allow his daughters to get away with their actions. After Goneril and Regan had left Lear out in the storm, Lear boldly stated:
But I will punish home!
No, I will weep no more. In such a night
To shut me out! Pour on; I will endure. (III/iv/21-24)
Lear willed himself to stay strong. He said that he would take revenge on his daughters, not letting them win.
In contrast to the way Lear reacted to his situation, Gloucester reacted in an opposite manner. Gloucester did not have the same will and determination that Lear possessed. After Gloucester had been blinded, all he wanted to do was die. He gave Poor Tom money to take him to the cliffs of Dover where he planned to commit suicide:
There is a cliff, whose high and bending head
Looks fearfully in the confined deep.
Bring me but to the very brim of it,
And I’ll repair the misery thou dost bear
With something rich about me. From that place
I shall no leading need. (IV/i/88-93)
Gloucester no longer cared about himself and the world. His only desire was to end his suffering.
Both Lear and Gloucester’s pain caused significant advances in the plot. The main theme of King Lear was Filial Ingratitude. The more Goneril and Regan hurt their father, the more insane Lear became. Lear’s insanity was the basis behind the entire play. In the following quote, Lear describes how his daughters’ actions have caused his mind to fall apart.
When the mind’s free,
The body’s delicate. The tempest in my mine
Doth from my sense take all feeling else
Save what beats there. Filial ingratitude! (III/iv/15-19)
Goneril and Regan never stopped trying to hurt their father. Each ungrateful deed the sisters performed always led to another.
Gloucester’s suffering advanced the plot because it helped to portray Lear’s character. When Gloucester defies Goneril and Regan in order to help his true king, it showed the audience what great a king Lear must have been. In act three, scene three, Gloucester described how he would help the King.
These injuries the
King now bears will be revenged home; there is a part of a
power already footed; we must incline to the King. I
will look him and privily relieve him. (III/iii/10-13)
When Gloucester risked his life to help the king, it helped to depict Lear as a tragic hero because Lear is shown to have possessed an outstanding value. In addition to showing Lear’s great characteristics, Gloucester’s pain also proved how evil Goneril and Regan were. After Albany was aware of Gloucester’s fate, he told Goneril: “This shows you are above, / You justices, that these our nether crimes / So speedily can venge!” (IV/ii/89-91) Albany was appalled by the way his wife had treated Lear, again showing Lear as a tragic hero.
Even though Lear and Gloucester were indulged in both physical and emotional pain, they both were noble and honorable to others. When Lear and the fool were outside in the storm and had finally found shelter, Lear told the fool: “In, boy; go first. -houseless poverty / Nay get thee in.” (III/iv/32-33) Lear had felt sorry for the fool because whatever happened to him, happed to the fool. This act was out of character for Lear because royalty was supposed to enter first. However, Lear knew that the fool was cold, and took pity on him.
Just as Lear had taken pity on the fool, Gloucester took pity on the old man who had led him through his dark world. Gloucester knew that if Goneril and Regan found out about the old man’s kindness, the old man would share the same horrible fate as he had. Therefore, he told him: “Away, get thee away! Good friend, be gone. / Thy comforts can do me no good at all; / Thee they may hurt.” (IV/i/17-19) Gloucester, engrossed in pain, still felt remorse for those less fortunate than himself.
In both Lear and Gloucester’s distress, Goneril and Regan had expected their people to have the same malicious feelings toward Lear and Gloucester as they had. Unfortunately for Goneril and Regan, that did not happen. Because Lear and Gloucester were respected men, there were many who turned their backs on Goneril and Regan in order to help their King and Duke. The people knew that if caught, the punishment was death, but that did not matter to them. When France and Britain were in combat, armies that belonged to Goneril and Regan left and took Lear and Cordelia’s side.
In act five, scene one, Albany describes the war situation: “Sir, this I hear: the King comes to his daughter, / With others whom the rigour of our state / Forced to cry out.” (V/i/26-28) Not only did Goneril and Regan’s men risk their lives for Lear, but they also risked their lives for Gloucester. After Gloucester’s eyes were cruelly ripped from the sockets, Goneril’s own men rushed to help him:
Let’s follow the old Earl, and get the bedlam
To lead him were he would
Go thou. I’ll fetch some flax and whites of eggs
To apply to his bleeding face. Now heaven Help him! (III/vii/121-125)
Both Lear and Gloucester, in their anguish, realized that they could have been better leaders. They both became more compassionate and just. Lear, during a moment of sanity, realized how he had not been fair to the poor people in his kingdom. He asked the world to have more pity on those who have nothing, and fill them with their own riches:
Poor naked wretches, wheresoe’er you are,
That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,
O, have ta’en
Too little care of this! Take physic, pomp;
Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel,
That thou may’st shake the superflux to them
And show the heavens more just. (III/iv/34-42)
Gloucester, also realizes after he had lost his sight, that he should have given land and money to the poor. “I stumbled when I say. Full oft’tis seen / Our means secure us, and our mere defects / Prove our commodities.” (IV/i/22-24) Gloucester and Lear both feel this way because they personally discovered what it was like to have nothing.
In King Lear, both Lear and Gloucester are thrust into a way of life to which neither is accustomed. They both shared the same fate because of Lear’s daughters, Goneril and Regan. Lear and Gloucester coped with their situations in different ways, however, the way they treated others and the way others treated them was similar.
Many comparisons were drawn between these two characters, which helped the audience become more aware of their characteristics. William Shakespeare was a truly brilliant man in the way that he merged two honourable men into an atrocious life, which in the end, only made them better.
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