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Analysis of King Lear

    King Lear, by William Shakespeare, is a tragic tale of filial

conflict, personal transformation, and loss.  The story revolves

around the King who foolishly alienates his only truly devoted

daughter and realizes too late the true nature of his other two

daughters.  A major subplot involves the illegitimate son of

Gloucester, Edmund, who plans to discredit his brother Edgar and

betray his father.  With these and other major characters in the

play, Shakespeare clearly asserts that human nature is either

entirely good, or entirely evil.  Some characters experience a

transformative phase, where by some trial or ordeal their nature

is profoundly changed.  We shall examine Shakespeare's stand on

human nature in King Lear by looking at specific characters in

the play:  Cordelia who is wholly good, Edmund who is wholly

evil, and Lear whose nature is transformed by the realization of

his folly and his descent into madness.  

    The play begins with Lear, an old king ready for retirement, 

preparing to divide the kingdom among his three daughters.  Lear

has his daughters compete for their inheritance by judging who

can proclaim their love for him in the grandest possible

fashion.  Cordelia finds that she is unable to show her love

with mere words: 

 "Cordelia.  [Aside] What shall Cordelia speak?  Love, 

 and be silent."

 Act I, scene i, lines 63-64. 

Cordelia's nature is such that she is unable to engage in even

so forgivable a deception as to satisfy an old king's vanity and

pride, as we see again in the following quotation:

 "Cordelia.  [Aside]  Then poor cordelia!

 And not so, since I am sure my love's

 More ponderous than my tongue. "

 Act I, Scene i, lines 78-80. 

Cordelia clearly loves her father, and yet realizes that her

honesty will not please him.  Her nature is too good to allow

even the slightest deviation from her morals.  An impressive

speech similar to her sisters' would have prevented much

tragedy, but Shakespeare has crafted Cordelia such that she

could never consider such an act.  Later in the play Cordelia,

now banished for her honesty, still loves her father and

displays great compassion and grief for him as we see in the


 "Cordelia.  O my dear father, restoration hang

 Thy medicine on my lips, and let this kiss

 Repair those violent harms that my two sisters 

 Have in reverence made."

 Act IV, Scene vii, lines 26-29.

Cordelia could be expected to display bitterness or even

satisfaction at her father's plight, which was his own doing. 

However, she still loves him, and does not fault him for the

injustice he did her.  Clearly, Shakespeare has crafted Cordelia

as a character whose nature is entirely good, unblemished by any

trace of evil throughout the entire play.

    As an example of one of the wholly evil characters in the play,

we shall turn to the subplot of Edmund's betrayal of his father

and brother.  Edmund has devised a scheme to discredit his

brother Edgar in the eyes of their father Gloucester.  Edmund is

fully aware of his evil nature, and revels in it as seen in the

following quotation:

 "Edmund.  This is the excellent foppery of the world,

 that when we are sick in fortune, often the surfeits

 of our own behaviour, we make guilty of our disasters

 the sun, the moon, and stars; as if we were

 villains on necessity; fools by heavenly compulsion;

 knaves, thieves, and treachers by spherical 

 predominance; drunkards, liars, and adulterers by

 an enforced obedience of planetary influence; and 

 all that we are evil in, by a divine thrusting on.

    ... I should have been that I 

 am, had the maidenliest star in the firmament twinkled

 on my bastardizing."

 Act I, scene ii, lines 127-137, 143-145.  

Clearly, Edmund recognizes his own evil nature and decides to

use it to his advantage.  He mocks the notion of any kind of

supernatural or divine influence over one's destiny.  Edgar must

go into hiding because of Edmund's deception, and later Edmund

betrays Gloucester himself, naming him a traitor which results

in Gloucester's eyes being put out.  Edmund feels not the

slightest remorse for any of his actions.  Later on, after the

invading French army has been repelled, Lear and Cordelia have

been taken captive and Edmund gives these chilling words to his


 "Edmund.  Come hither captain; hark.

 Take thou this note: go follow them to prison;

 One step I have advanced thee; if thou dost

 As this instructs thee, thou dost make thy way

 To noble fortunes: know thou this, that men

 Are as the time is: to be tender-minded

 Does not become a sword: thy great employment  

 Will not bear question; either say thou'lt do't,

 Or thrive by other means."

 Act V, scene iii, lines 27-34.

Edmund has just instructed his captain to take Lear and Cordelia

away to prison and to kill them, and make it look like suicide. 

Obviously there is no limit to the depths of Edmund's evil. 

Shakespeare has created a perfect villain, with no remorse, no

compassion, and who is universally despised by readers of the

play.  In the end, mortally wounded, Edmund does regret his

actions and attempts to undo some of the hurt he has caused, and

so perhaps we could also say Edmund is one of the characters who

undergoes a transformation in the end.  However, up until that

point, Edmund remains a classic villain, whose human nature is

entirely evil.

    At the beginning of the play, we see Lear as a proud, vain,

quick-tempered old king, not necessarily evil, but certainly not

good.  His folly leads to the alienation of his one truly loving

daughter Cordelia, and the revelation that Regan and Goneril's

profession of love for him were mere empty words.  Turned away

by both Regan and Goneril, Lear rails against the storm and

screams "I am a man more sinned against than sinning." (Act III,

scene ii, lines 56,57).  Here Lear still believes he is the

victim; and yet there is some admission on his part that he has

some guilt in the matter.  After the storm, when Lear's madness

has run its course, both he and Cordelia are taken prisoner by

Albany's army.  We see the full effect of Lear's transformation

in his joy at his reunion with his daughter, uncaring of his

status as a prisoner:

 "He that parts us shall bring a brand from heaven,

 And fire us hence like foxes.  Wipe thine eyes;

 The good years shall devour them, flesh and fell,

 Ere they shall make us weep.  We'll see 'em starved first."

 Act V, scene iii lines 22-25

This new carefree Lear is certainly a far cry from the arrogant

king we saw at the beginning of the play.  His joy at

reconciliation with his daughter outweighs any other concerns he

might have.  Shakespeare has transformed Lear in the reader's

eyes from a hateful old king into almost a grandfatherly, loving

figure.  It is not necessarily a transformation from evil into

good; rather it is a transformation from blindness into sight. 

    In King Lear, we have seen that Shakespeare has carefully

crafted the characters and clearly defined their human natures

as being good or evil.  There is no doubting the absolute

goodness that Cordelia maintains throughout the play, and the

sheer evil that Edmund displays until his plans are in ruins. 

In Lear we see a flawed figure who by misfortune and loss

finally comes to revelation and personal transformation.  In

that sense, these characters are perfect tragic figures, perhaps

not necessarily realistic but powerful and moving nonetheless.  

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