10 November 2013
William Shakespeare’s King Lear is a tragedy written in blank verse. However, rhymed couplets appear sparsely throughout the text. According to Stephen Greenblatt, the play has a double plot (Greenblatt 1251). One plot follows King Lear and his daughters. The other plot follows Gloucester and his two sons. Both plots deal with the transfer of power from one generation to the other, but Greenblatt says that the double plot is to show that the problem of transferring power does not come down to the lack of having a son as an heir (Greenblatt 1251).
The king sees that his rule is coming to a close, and he decides to give up his power to his daughters in order for him to enjoy the rest of his days in luxury. The king asks his daughters to prove who loves him most through flattering speech. The king says that the winner will receive the largest plot of land. Goneril and Regan try their best to persuade the king to believe that they love him most, but Cordelia tells the king that she loves him just as much as families are supposed to love one another. The king rejects Cordelia’s claim of filial love. He banishes her to France and disqualifies her from the competition for his lands (Shakespeare 1255-1257).
The king splits his kingdom between his two remaining daughters and proceeds to celebrate his retirement with a royal hunt (Shakespeare 1257, 1272). On this hunt, King Lear keeps a following of one hundred servants many of whom are knights. Goneril gives King Lear an ultimatum: either he dispenses of half of his men or he is no longer welcome in her house (Shakespeare 1272-1274). He is enraged by her demand that he makes a trek in the middle of the night to go live at his daughter Reagan’s house. Goneril fears that he may decide to take back his power, and she plots to have his entourage reduced. Goneril sends a messenger to deliver a letter to Regan before the king gets there. The letter warns Regan of the king’s coming and advises her that Goneril will arrive shortly after him (Shakespeare 1275).
When the king arrives, Regan will only allow him to come inside if he disbands 75 of his following. Offended, the king wants to return to live with Goneril because she had given him a better offer. But upon hearing the king’s change of mind, Goneril tells the king that she will no longer accept any of his servants (Shakespeare 1292). When the weather turns bad, the two sisters decide that the house is much too small and they do not allow the king entrance unless he comes alone, but the king will not disband his servants (Shakespeare 1293).
The king is guided to Cordelia’s camp by Kent. At Cordelia’s camp, the king is treated with herbs to combat his madness (Shakespeare 1316). The French forces led by Cordelia and English forces lead by Goneril and Regan meet and the French forces win but not without serious consequences. In the battles to regain Lear’s kingdom, all of his daughters were killed. When King Lear regains enough sanity to understand what has happened he dies of sorrow (Shakespeare 1339).
Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, the preceding entry in the Norton Anthology of English Literature, complements King Lear by setting up common themes that are explored differently in each play. As Twelfth Night demonstrates the positive results of a short period of overindulgence, King Lear demonstrates the destructive power that long term or unrestrained overindulgence can reap. The revelers of Twelfth Night only try to party away the restrictions of the holy days, but the king of King Lear wants to party away the restrictions of a long life as the ruler of a kingdom. Four of the same themes that are used in Twelfth Night play a role in King Lear as well. In King Lear, Shakespeare uses the themes of time, excess, folly, and energy to create a tragedy of great power.
The theme of time appears in the guise of advancing age. King Lear uses his advancing age as his reason behind abdicating the throne to his daughters. Goneril and Regan see the king’s dismissal of his favorite daughter, Cordelia as a result of his advancing age. Goneril says, “You see how full of change his age is. . . he has always loved our sister most; and what poor judgment he hath now cast her off appears too grossly” (Shakespeare 1262). Additionally, Goneril and Regan fear that the king’s old age could cause him to act against them in anger (Shakespeare 1262). However, Goneril and Regan misdiagnose the king’s true problem.
All of King Lear’s problems grow from his constant need for excess. His need for excessive flattery started the major complications of the play. When Cordelia said that she loved him according to her bond, the king’s need for excess was not sated. She further degraded the king’s quest for excessive flattery by claiming that a daughter only has so much love to give and when she takes a husband her love for the king will be reduced again by half (Shakespeare 1257). Cordelia claims that a daughter cannot truly love her father with every bit of love that she has. Cordelia’s claim not only told the king of the conditions of her love, but also reduced the claims of her sisters to obvious lies. Therefore, the king reacted in the only way he could with an excessive punishment. He awarded Cordelia with no lands and banished her to France (Shakespeare 1261). As evidenced by Cordelia’s banishment, King Lear’s obsession with excess causes him to descend into folly.
The theme of folly is probably the most fully developed theme in the entire play. The king’s every move is motivated by folly. The folly of banishing Cordelia leads Goneril and Regan to take steps to avoid being the next victims of the king’s folly. They give the king an ultimatum that he either reduce his following or be sent away (Shakespeare 1273-1274, 1292). But rather than except a less than kingly retinue, King Lear banishes himself to wander in the rain (Shakespeare 1293). As motivating as King Lear’s follies are, they are motivated by something deeper.
The theme of energy takes a weird and unhealthy turn in the story of King Lear. The themes of time, excess, and folly are all held together by the king’s energy. King Lear is constantly creating change. The contest of love between his daughters, the need to give away his power, the banishment of his favorite daughter, the constant entertaining, and his self-imposed banishment into the rainy night are all brought on by the king’s inability to keep things as they are. When the king goes to wander alone in the rain, he no longer has an outlet for his inescapable and self-destructive energy. Alone in the rain, the only outlet the king has for this energy is his own mind, and he drives himself insane (Shakespeare 1295). By the time that Kent and the fool arrive to help him out, the king is too far into his own mind to return to reality.
Time, excess, folly, and energy are four themes that not only define King Lear as a character, but also define King Lear the play. Every character may not have the richly interwoven tapestry of thematic motivations that King Lear does, but they all contribute the development of one theme or the other. On thematic development alone, King Lear is a fantastic piece of literature; the editors of the Norton Anthology of English Literature did a great job picking two of Shakespeare’s plays that work well together, and demonstrate Shakespeare’s ability to fully explore a theme.
Shakespeare, William. King Lear. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. 9th. ed. Vol. 1. New York: Norton, 2012.1251-1339. Print.
Shakespeare, William. Twelfth Night. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. 9th. ed. Vol. 1. New York: Norton, 2012.1187-1250. Print.