Pour in some white. Add a little black and mix. The recipe seems simple enough.
Yet the result is deemed less than desirable by many. After all, what does the average person see when he thinks of the color gray—rainy days, bullets, fat elephants, rusted and worn metal?These are not exactly the most pleasant or inspiring thoughts in the world. But gray is also the color of the real—the color of humanity itself. Only the artist (the painter, the musician, the writer) has truly foraged into the depths of the human soul and recorded its confessions of moral ambiguity.
William Shakespeare was among the most gifted at capturing the complexity that is man. Why are the Bard’s tales so timeless? While most of his contemporaries and predecessors crafted stories of simplistic plot and one-dimensional characters, William Shakespeare set a gold standard for modern-day psychological, character-driven drama by infusing his characters with human conflict. Tragedy, poetry, romance, or even comedy— Shakespeare’s eclectic writings are full of life’s—and literature’s—greatest battle: man against himself.
This struggle is amplified in arguably Shakespeare’s most powerful tragedy, King Lear.
The title character embarks on a spiritual “coming of age” journey which truly proves the mantra better late than never. King Lear’s journey opens where many coming of age stories begin: a narrowed worldview focused on self-indulgence and physical pleasure. The opening acts of the play establish Lear as a leader impressed with his own authority, readily angered by any protest, and easily swayed by flattery. The king is always followed by an entourage of one hundred men, all of which are more symbolic of the ruler’s pomp and power than a true security force.
Regan and Goneril recognize this importance, which is why their first action of disobedience against their father is a reduction—then an outright removal—of the men. Lear can be seen as an authority figure more in love with the appearance of power than the actual application and positive benefits of power. He is, after all, more than willing to abdicate responsibility for his kingdom to his daughters, as long as he is still provided a superficial “show” of authority. How do his daughters achieve their power? Lear does not merely request flattery….
he demands it. Shakespeare utilizes Act I as an opportunity to personify the extreme ends of spiritual development through Lear’s three daughters. Goneril and Regan bear little difference. Each more than willingly strokes their father’s ego, peppering him with empty conceits: “A love that makes .
. . speech unable Beyond all manner of so much I love you” (I.1.
59). However, when Lear’s youngest and favored daughter, Cordelia, is given her father’s love test, she responds with a simple , “ I cannot heave My heart into my mouth. I love your majesty According to my bond” (I.1.
90-91). While Goneril and Regan seek only favor with their words, Cordelia chooses honesty. She pays the price for her “betrayal.” This pattern continues throughout the play, as the two older sisters devolve into further debauchery, while Cordelia proves her basic good nature by sending help for her ailing father (and described in the most angelic terms—“she shook The holy water from her heavenly eyes” (IV.
3.28–29)). Goneril and Regan represent where Lear is (at the lowest end of the spiritual path), while Cordelia is a beacon of light, a guidepost for where the aging king needs to be. However, the king cannot see what is so painfully obvious, which is why he meets any attempts to challenge his decisions with harsh retaliation (witness the earl of Kent’s banishment).
The King Lear to which the reader is introduced is a man living in true spiritual blindness, although in reasonable physical health. He is firmly entrenched in the first stage of grief, denial. Ironically, one will see that as Lear’s physical and mental condition deteriorates, his moral condition follows an opposite track. The next major stage in the king’s journey mirrors the second stage of grief: realization and anger.
When his eldest daughters strip Lear of his men, they take away more than a physical force. They take away their father’s livelihood. Through this symbolic removal of his power, Lear must face a most inconvenient reality: he is growing older. Thus, he is losing his prominence in the world.
Goneril even jabs at her father’s fragility, causing him to lash out in anger and wish her childless. But more importantly, his daughter’s cruel remarks make Lear begin to question himself, “Doth any here know me? This is not Lear. . .
. Who is it that can tell me who I am?” (I.4.201–205) Lear experiences further betrayal when he seeks refuge with Regan, only to find his trusted servant in the stocks and yet another challenge to his senility: “I pray you, father, being weak, seem so” (II.
iv.196). Desperate, Lear is even reduced to that pitiful old man his daughters callously describe when he literally begs on hands and knees for Regan’s help. When his pleas fall on deaf ears, the resulting anger leaves a crucial opening for the king’s transformation to truly begin: “If it be you that stir these daughters’ hearts Against their father, fool me not so much To bear it tamely; touch me with noble anger… O fool, I shall go mad!” (II.
4.264-267) Unfortunately, Lear’s latter prophecy is fulfilled as the third stage of his journey begins. The betrayal of his daughters leaves the king in a vulnerable emotional state. He tears outside into an oncoming storm.
During this critical scene, Shakespeare continues his long tradition of using seas and storms to personify the psychological condition of his characters. As the winds rage and the waters swirl chaotic, so does the king. As his mind hops frenzied from one thought to the next, all the while raging against his treacherous daughters, the words of the accompanying fool resonate most clear: “One minded like the weather, most unquietly”(III.1.
1– 2). Lear’s ever-loosening grip on reality is most evident when he challenges the storm surrounding and engulfing him: “Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow! You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout Till you have drenched our steeples, drowned the cocks!” (III.2.1–3) Companions Edgar and the Fool feed further into the insanity by conducting a mock trial for Goneril and Regan, and declaring “mad” anyone who could trust “two wolflike daughters” (III.
6.16). In one of the most stirring scenes of the play, the reader witnesses the king’s once regal demeanor and once poetic verse reduced to a crown of wild flowers and a nonsensical “Fie, fie, fie! Pah! Pah!” (III.5.
12). Lear’s mental and physical madness truly strips him bare, allowing for the next fork in the king’s spiritual journey The storm is not only a pivotal moment because it amplifies the king’s madness. In the midst of the unforgiving weather—in the midst of his own madness—King Lear finds the key to his own self-discovery and transformation: humility. When Lear finds Edgar wandering in the storm, he is moved by the sight of the younger man covered in tattered rags.
Edgar’s diminished physical state prompts the king to compare him to a “a poor, bare, forked animal” (III. iv. 99–100). Both men are powerless against the sheer dominance of nature.
Now, with the betrayal of his daughters and the collapse of his empire heavy on his conscience, Lear finally realizes that he, too, is just a small pawn in the universe: “Is man no more than this?” (III.4.95) He is vulnerable to the same cruelties and randomness that defines every man’s life. He declares “Through tattered clothes small vices do appear; Robes and furred gowns hide all”(IV.
6.158-159). Stripped of his fancy clothes and his confidence-boosting servants, Lear is symbolically stripped bare himself. He now realizes just how easily his daughters manipulated him, appealing to his pride and vanity: “They flattered me like a dog.
. . . To say ‘aye’ and ‘no’ to everything that I said!” (IV.
6.95-98) Ashamed and humbled, the king muses on the worth- lessness of clothing—whether they be rags or robes—and attempts to rip off his own clothing in a show of kinship with the rest of his fellow man. He also humbles himself before nature by adorning himself with its most harmless component, flowers. This newfound insight allows Lear to make a painful, simple admission to his beloved daughter Cordelia in Act IV: “I am a very foolish fond old man” (IV.
7.61). As Lear’s physical and mental condition continues to crumble—as he is humbled—an interesting paradox occurs. The king’s moral character strengthens.
For the first time, the once self-absorbed ruler displays a heretofore alien trait: compassion. The reader first witnesses Lear’s kinder, gentler nature during the storm. Although the king is beginning to realize his own madness, he still shows concern for his faithful companion the Fool. As the two seek refuge from the storm, Lear asks “How dost my boy? Art cold?” (III.
2.66) He further concedes, “I have one part in my heart That’s sorry yet for thee” (III.2.70-71).
Never before has Lear shown genuine concern for another person. Amazingly, the trend continues when the two refugees find shelter. After ushering his companion to safety, Lear remains in the storm long enough to offer a harsh self-condemnation and a prayer for those less fortunate. He criticizes himself for caring so little about his impoverished subjects when he was ruler, and he pleads protection for the “poor naked wretches, wheresoe’er you are, That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm” (III.
4.29–30). Finally, he implores that he personally may “expose thyself to feel what wretches feel” (III.4.
35). Lear is not content with being a man of sympathy; he wants to be a true man of empathy. For the first time, the king shows a true desire for a better, more meaningful existence. He wants salvation.
The remainder of the play begs the question of whether such salvation is possible. In true repentant fashion, Lear seeks amends for his misdeeds and mistakes. His newfound humility and shame initially makes him avoid his estranged daughter. However, when the two do reconcile, Cordelia becomes the apex of the ailing king’s existence, and the cornerstone of his own moral development.
He even expresses a desire to live alone with his daughter—like birds in a cage—rather than experience another moment of the world’s cruelties: ““We two alone will sing like birds i’ the cage. When thou dost ask me blessing, I’ll kneel down, And ask of thee forgiveness” (V.3.9–11).
One might say that the king has finally reached the top of the self-actualization pyramid. He is willing to sacrifice all physical wants for a peaceful, moral, and secure existence. Ironically, the king’s spiritual awakening concurs with the onset of physical blindness. At his most destitute, at his most weak, at his most meek, King Lear has never been stronger.
However, when Lear arrives at the end of his spiritual journey, what awaits him but death? His daughter—the very epitome of righteousness and purity—dies a callous, meaningless death. He is surrounded by grief and loss in his final moments, reducing him once again to that animalistic “Howl, howl, howl, howl” (V.3.260).
Hopelessness reigns. Yet in those darkest of moments, Lear still manages to cling onto hope in one phantom movement of his daughter’s hand. But perhaps this gesture was not a mere ghostly illusion. Maybe, just maybe, Cordelia reached from beyond the grave to remind her father—and the reader—that hope springs eternal….
and true salvation is never lost. The human race is most comfortable in a world of absolutes. Love is good. Hate is bad.
Compassion is right. Murder is wrong. The list goes on and on. Yet in every one of these allegedly unbreakable rules, one is apt to discover exceptions.
Despite these exceptions, humans still hold steadfast to their black and white brushes. The bright, distinct colors are preferable to the unclearness and “grayness” of actual existence. The fairy tale is always preferable to the reality. But do we subconsciously crave a validation of our own imperfect humanity? Perhaps Shakespeare’s words resonate so deeply because they make heroes of ordinary men.
Ordinary men are not knights in shining armor with perfect manners and perfect answers to their troubles. Ordinary men make mistakes. Ordinary men battle for their very existence every day. Ordinary men battle themselves most of all.
Cite this King lear: morality in the madness
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