How does Shakespeare illuminate and develop character in the opening scenes of King Lear?
In the opening scenes of King Lear, we are introduced to many characters, all of whom are provided with an array of personalities and opinions. However, even in the early stages we see a development in these characters, in their way of thinking and how they deal with the challenges around them. The first of many of these characters is Gloucester. In the opening scene, Gloucester is portrayed as a very heartless character, especially to his illegitimate son Edmund, “I have so often blushed to acknowledge him… ” Despite his brave face, we as the reader see Gloucester as being ashamed here, totally embarrassed and full of guilt.
Gloucester’s way of trying to hide this is by degrading Edmund, “Do you smell a fault? ” The fault referred to here being Edmunds existence, and Gloucester feels no guilt in referring to him as a “knave” and a “whoreson”. The “whoreson” could also illuminate Gloucester as being a slightly dishonest character, having obviously carried out an affair some time ago. He is also very cold in the way he describes Edmund’s mother, “whereupon she grew round-wombed, and had, indeed, Sir, a son for her cradle ere she had a husband for her bed”.
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Despite Edmund being there with him, Gloucester has no problem in talking in a degrading way to someone who Edmund thinks so greatly of. This could suggest his personality being slightly bigheaded and pompous. This attitude is continued when Gloucester talks about Edmunds conceiving; “there was good sport at his making, and the whoreson must be acknowledged”, Gloucester clearly feels no shame over his actions. Despite this however, in scene 2, we see a change in his character. Gloucester’s bigheadedness in the first scene has disappeared, and his character had developed into a more sincere person.
We see him at the beginning as being genuinely worried about the situation at the end of scene 1, “Kent banished thus! And France in choler parted! And the King gone to-night!.. ” This shows a completely different character to the beginning of the play, and for the first time, Gloucester is concerned. However, Gloucester’s character isn’t a totally positive change. Upon reading the letter written by Edmund under the lie that it is from his brother Edgar, Gloucester reacts in exactly the same way as Lear did towards Cordelia. At first, exactly as Lear, he is disappointed, and feels let down by his son.
However, soon after, the disappointment turns to anger “O villain, villain! ” This is unusual for Gloucester’s character, which is normally calm and collected. We also see another development in the way that Gloucester changes his approach towards Edmund, the son he referred to at the beginning as a “fault” and a “whoreson” suddenly becomes of importance to him, and Edmunds acceptance of him becomes of great importance to Gloucester also. Gloucester also develops in the way his manner towards Edgar changes. He turns on him completely, ordering Edmund to seek him out immediately.
However, Gloucester does not blame Edgar entirely for the way he has supposedly acted. Gloucester speaks as a wise man, stating that the recent breakdown in the parent and child relationship, both between him and Edgar, and Lear and Cordelia, on planetary influence. He states that the natural world affects human beings and the way they behave towards each other. This shows the development of Gloucester’s character with age and experience, and shows that he is not hasty in his decisions, unlike Lear. The second and most varying character in terms of attitude is Lear.
Upon his entrance into the play, Lear is seen as any ordinary man of age. Despite being King, he speaks of dividing his kingdom between his three daughters, Goneril, Regan and Cordelia. As any regular older person, at this particular time of his life he wants to retire and enjoy life. As a result he announces that he will split his Kingdom into three equal parts, “Know that we have divided in three our Kingdom… ” At this point, Lear doesn’t seem any different to anyone else of the same age as him. However, right from the very beginning, Lear is portrayed as a very boastful man.
This is confirmed in that he wants each of his daughters to say how much they love him before he issues them their part of the Kingdom. Lear’s only demand from this is to boost his ego, and ultimately to give him the “feel good factor, “Which of you shall we say doth love us most? ” Lear is also very scheming in the way that he already knows what land each daughter is going to get even before they speak. This could also suggest loneliness in Lear’s life, that the love his daughters feel for him needs to be proved before he can believe them, suggesting he has lacked their love all his life.
After the event, Lear’s character changes completely in his behaviour towards Cordelia and her reaction to the task set by him. The angry side of his character is illuminated. This also develops further when he disowns her for not fulfilling his wish. This furthermore shows his selfish and uncaring personality, and illuminates that the relationship between him and his daughter is of no importance to him if he does not get what he wants. His overreaction in this situation also highlights his childish personality, and Lear hits rock bottom after his actions.
His spoilt character is shown in that he is bitter towards her over something pathetic, “Hold thee from this forever. The barbarous Scythian,” The unstableness and the development of his senile mind is also a main proportion of Lear’s personality and character. Although developed through the opening scenes, there is a mention on line 144, “when Lear is mad. ” This could be an explanation for Lear’s anger, and a suggestion that he may feel intimidated by others around him. This could be a sure sign that Lear is loosing his mind, as if he was completely sane he would realise that he has the most powerful position over everyone.
His anger is repeated in the occurrence of Kent defending Cordelia. Once again, Lear refers to the only resort he knows, and treats Kent in the exact same way as Cordelia. He is then childish towards France also after he takes Cordelia’s hand in marriage, “Come, noble Burgundy” This is a clear symbol that Lear is not used to people going against him, and is a very spoilt character. Scene 4 shows ultimate development in Lear’s character. We see a difference in his status, and it is clear that he as lost his power and authority, “and as poor as the king”.
This paradox shows ultimately Lear’s situation, and establishes Lear’s low status; he has given up everything. There is another clear indication of Lear’s insecure mind in this situation as Lear doesn’t realise the way he is treated and behaves how he always has. This could also be an indication of Lear’s proud personality, and a sense that he is slightly nai??ve also, as he is not treated as he used to be, and is almost unworthy of anything, yet can not see it. However, as time proceeds, Lear becomes slightly wiser, and notices the differences in the way he is treated.
His bounce-back personality tries to change this, however he is dismissed immediately as “My Lady’s Father”, and Lear’s personality is ultimately defined as unworthy and foolish, “beg another of thy daughters”. Lear’s ageing is also emphasised, both in character and personality, “thou hast little wit in thy bald crown” This could suggest that all of Lear’s actions are due to age, and emphasises his vulnerability. This is also revealed in the further development of his deteriorating state of mind, “Are you our daughter? He is bewildered by Goneril and her actions, and is proved further when Lear speaks in third person, “Does Lear walk thus? Speak thus? ” suggesting yet again that he is unstable. On the third occasion since the beginning of the play, Lear yet again gets angry. He is nothing anymore, yet there is consistence in his character, as he reacts how he always does and disowns Goneril, “had daughters”. Yet again, this is the only way Lear knows how to react when things go wrong for him. Lear is a very headstrong and stubborn character, he does not listen to anyone else or what they are saying.
However, he does begin do question his own actions towards Cordelia, “O most small fault, how ugly didst thou in Cordelia show! ” The fact that he mentions Cordelia could be a proposal that his mind is weakening, and he is floating from past events to present. It could also show the effects of age on Lear, and that he is not as headstrong and confident as he always was. This unstable character of Lear’s is illuminated once again in his bad judgement with the disowning of Cordelia and the decision to divide his Kingdom, “And thy dear judgement out! . However, this change in character and slight regret is short lived as once again Lear resorts to his old, authorative personality and takes major extremes, yet again overreacting.
Once again he shows his determined and stubborn character. Lear is ultimately very confused, and doesn’t know of any other punishment. The fact that he doesn’t want anything negative near him highlights yet again his childlike behaviour and personality. Lear is ultimately portrayed as frustrated, in his ranting of an impotent person, “Pierce every sense about thee! He is foolish, especially in his confidence in Regan. This is highly ironic, and illuminates his bad judge of character. His future at the end of act 1 is very uncertain. Another character mentioned in the opening scenes is Goneril. At the beginning she is presented as a very sly character in her speech towards her father. Her words are very over the top and exaggerated, Goneril wants a good bit of land off her father. She knows what she has to do to get what she wants, and knows that by nurturing her father’s ego she will get what she wants.
This illuminates Goneril’s cunning character and personality, “Sir, I love you more than word can wield the matter… ” Towards Cordelia, Goneril’s view on the situation is that she brought her misfortune on herself. Goneril is very uncaring towards her sister, and her selfish character is revealed as Goneril is aware that now she will have more land due to her sister’s departure. Goneril’s character is also very deceitful, and she and Regan plan immediately how to make sure Lear doesn’t control them as soon as they are declared owners of their land.
This also shows Goneril to be a very false character; she clearly does not care or have any respect for her father, she even suggests that his mind is weakening and that he is going senile, “You see how full of changes his age is”. This shows Goneril to be a very cold hearted person, as any normal daughter would be very upset at the fact. She shows no consideration for her father, and is a very selfish character in that she only cares about herself, and how her father’s actions could harm them. Her cunning character is also highlighted, in that she plans against her fears immediately.
Her selfishness and lack of respect toward her father is developed when Lear goes to stay with her at her castle. Goneril isn’t happy at all, “His knights grow riotous, and himself upbraids is on every trifle”. She is an extremely angry character, very much like her father, and being the selfish character that she is, orders her guards not to serve him. This is a true reflection of Goneril’s deepest and most negative personality, her cold-hearted nature and selfish ways overrule her in many ways. She is also very uncaring, and this is proven in the way she describes Lear as an “idle old man”, and orders everyone to ignore him.
Her scheming character is developed further when she tells Oswald not to do anything for her father, and states that she will write a letter to Regan to do the same thing. This illuminates her cold, uncaring and spiteful character; she feels no guilt in treating her father this way. Despite this, Goneril is very wise to her actions, “This admiration, Sir, is much o’th’savour of other your new pranks”. Goneril tells her father that only the elderly of his fleet are able to stay with him, knowing that this will keep order, and that the old men, exactly like her father, will be easy to control and rule over.
She also knows that this will upset Lear, and he will fulfil what she wants most, and will leave her castle. However, she is also aware of the outcome of her wicked ways, and that there is a possibility that Lear’s men will form an army against her, and that she and her people will be outnumbered. She quickly dismisses this danger, and is very sly in character by sending Oswald with the letter to Regan before her father’s arrival. She yet again shows no guilt in what she does, and this emphasises her cold and merciless personality.
Goneril is ultimately very much like her father, she is adamant and headstrong. She is very authorative, and belittles everyone around her, especially Albany. She has no concerns with anyone else but herself, and think Albany stupid and nai??ve, “this milky gentleness and course of yours.. “. This is a very similar situation to Macbeth, in where Lady Macbeth refers to Macbeth as something similar. Goneril is superior to anyone around her, but there is a slight worry as to when her confident personality will go one step too far…