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King Lear


By William Shakespeare
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 following: 

"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 captain:
"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


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