Shakespeare’s King Lear is not a play about morality or love. It’s not a play about individuals. It’s a play about a country, a nation that is facing some kind of disruption.
Disruption becomes a prominent theme here. It’s a very obvious play and does not go into layers. It tells very clearly the perspective that Shakespeare is presenting. He is showing that no matter how clever the evil may be, it’s good that finally triumphs and the balance of nature cannot be broken forever. It can be disrupted for a short time, but finally, it is nature that is all-powerful.
Cordelia, King Lear’s daughter chooses to be honest rather than flatter her father at the beginning of the play. She shows that character is of utmost importance in a person’s life. The division of characters in this play is very neat. There are no gray characters. Some of them are standing on the evil side and others on the good. The distinction between good and evil is very clear.
Among ‘white’ characters we have King Lear, Earl of Kent, Earl of Gloucester, Edgar, and Cordelia. These characters are constantly opposed to the level of behavior and projecting values by ‘black’ characters. In the blacklist, we have two elder daughters of Lear, their husbands, and Edmund. The play confuses morality with foolishness, as well as mingles insanity with wisdom. Because the wisest characters are portrayed as making the most foolish decisions.
The play opens and we find King Lear asking a very silly question to his daughters. “How much do you love me?”, he asks each of the three daughters one by one. It looks that the king is not in his senses. But one cannot dare to call him a fool. He is a king and he is recognized as a wise man. The elder two sisters lie and pretend to be loving and loyal daughters. The younger daughter, Cordelia does not lie and says that she loves him as a daughter should love her father. She knows her sisters’ intentions.
When Lear asks her, “What do you say?”. She replies, “Nothing my Lord”. It means if this is love that her elder sisters are showing then she has nothing to show. He loves her the most and wants to listen to exaggerated praise from her. But she cannot befool her father like them. Lear gets angry at her “nothing” and deprives her of a share in his kingdom.
So the play begins with some decisions by which self-centered and cynical characters are rewarded, but innocents are deprived. It’s a tragedy in the very beginning. These are the two distinct categories and nothing falls between these. The country has plunged into the hands of the bad people. The doom is inevitable. The bad people turn worst, but they face constant resistance by the good.
The play shows the manipulation of great virtues like morality, innocence, and honesty by those having selfish and evil intentions. Lear considers it a moral and religious responsibility and decides to divide his state among his daughters. Cordelia appears to act with “foolish honesty” and speaks the truth to her father. Her decision to remain true to her father is based on moral grounds, but to her materialistic sisters, it is foolishness.
Her elder sisters get large parts of the kingdom by deceiving their father. Then they turn indifferent to their father. He is homeless and penniless. He is now a mad wanderer in rags in the streets of his state. Then we see a reversal in the hierarchy.
The fools assist him in gaining wisdom and humility. King accepts heavy criticism from him. This role of reversal is important to the development of the play because the fool acts as Lear’s window to wisdom. It’s not until Lear has become completely mad that he begins to make wise choices. He needed this reversal in roles in order to develop as a character.
Everything seems to be out of order. First of all, it’s a country whose ruler is not wise. He makes wrong decisions. Secondly as a result of his wrong decision the country has fallen into the hands of morally corrupt people who cannot run it. The honest and competent ones are kept aside. In nature, this cannot go on for a long time. It must collapse.
It collapses and the order is finally restored. In the end there is a powerful resistance that the good people gave to the bad and the play ends with a lot of dead bodies.
The major concerns in the play are the disintegration of polity and the disintegration of family. The country cannot be governed in the old way. Things have changed. Earlier the king was supposed to be appointing and the deputy of God. But here the king is treated as an ordinary person. He is thrown out and helpless.
The new rulers are conspirators. Under them, the people will fight for more and more privileges, and the country loses its grip over polity. Anarchy will prevail. Then there are no filial bonds in the royal family. Earl of Gloucester has a bastard son. The play also shows that the epoch is coming to an end. The king was supposed to rule until his death. But here the king is denouncing the throne in his middle age. The old epoch is ending but the new epoch is not showing any sign of hope. Darkness seems to be inevitable. But time will tell what is and what is not.
The play was performed in 1606. Queen Elizabeth died in 1603. After her, the country had no ruler from its own soil. The ruler was to be imported from somewhere else. James I from Scotland assumed the throne. The common masses accept a ruler from another land heavy heartedly. Shakespeare knew it very well how to enthrall an audience. He was watching and he was well aware of the emotions of the people. England near and after the death of Queen Elizabeth was moving from stability to instability both in politics and society. At that time he produced his plays in accordance with the public demand. We see in this play that the state is divided and the legacy seems to have ended.
The disorder that one finds in this play is symbolic of the times. The common masses of England had no optimism left. At that time only such plays were expected to be successful. Shakespeare was always after the ideas and emotions of the public. He was least concerned with his personal emotions. This play outdoes many other plays in its powerful poetic aspect.