Samuel Johnson once said that «King Lear», a famous tragedy by William Shakespeare, is the play where «the wicked prosper and the virtuous miscarry». His observation is not entirely accurate: the virtuous face challenges and sufferings, but the vicious do not remain unpunished — they get what they deserve in the end. This article aims to analyze the vices and virtues of man through the prism of actions and qualities of the characters of the play.
Keywords: King Lear, Shakespeare, vices, virtues.
Данная статья посвящена анализу пороков и добродетелей людей на материале пьесы Уильяма Шекспира «Король Лир». Сначала автор подробно рассматривает пороки отдельных героев произведения, объясняя возможные причины их аморальных и беспринципных поступков. Затем осуществляется анализ добродетелей, приводятся доводы, подтверждающие, что некоторые персонажи обладают высокими моральными качествами. В заключение автор подводит итоги.
Ключевые слова: Король Лир, Шекспир, пороки, добродетели.
William Shakespeare is one of the most notable English poets and playwrights who left a large number of great works that raise the issues that are still relevant in modern society. One of the most outstanding plays which touches upon various aspects of human life and exposes the vices and foolishness of people is «King Lear». Among the themes that are addressed in the play are family quarrels, betrayal, envy and desire to achieve particular goals by fair means or foul, jealousy and adultery, disrespect, etc. The author describes the life of people who tend to make silly mistakes and act on a whim, who begin to understand others and themselves much better only after some challenges, who become villains or conversely prove their generosity, fidelity, and courage. Though the characters are different, they have one thing in common — the need to struggle with themselves or with the external world.
The first issue of the play to be noted is selfishness and narcissism. Because of these vices, the king makes a grave mistake which marks the beginning of a series of catastrophes in his life. He decides to divide the kingdom into three parts between Goneril, Regan, and Cordelia and before he actually does it, Lear wants to hear some flattery from his daughters as proof of their love and loyalty. «Which of you shall we say doth love us most?» [1, с. 102] — he asks them. Not having heard the words of praise from Cordelia, he does not believe that her «love’s more ponderous than [her] tongue» [1, c. 103]. Cordelia is frank and loving but unfortunately too simple-hearted to understand that her father is not able to see her real feelings.
There exist two possible reasons why Lear is so cold-hearted towards his younger daughter. Being a monarch, Lear has probably been getting compliments all his life, and he cannot accept the fact that someone does not want to flatter him. Another explanation is that he judges a book by its cover — in other words, he judges people by what they say, ignoring their actions and virtues. Thus, he believes the lies of the older daughters and even rewards them for that, while sincere words of Cordelia disappoint him and do not warm his selfish heart. The same refers to Kent, who wishes to talk some sense into Lear but is forced to leave the kingdom.
The next issue to be analyzed is disrespect for parents and the betrayal of close people. The theme runs like a thread through the tragedy, the problem arises in two families and influences the lives of many characters. First of all, these are Goneril and Regan, who do not show any respect for their father after he yields power to them and their husbands. Why do they induce him to leave the house in a terrible storm and prohibit Gloucester to find and invite the king to the castle? Different explanations may be proposed. The first one is quite obvious: the daughters begin to feel their power and to consider themselves real rulers who have the right to make all the decisions. They do not recognize the authority of Lear any more. Hypocrisy and deceitfulness make them flatter at the beginning of the play, egoism and hardness of their hearts make them forget about the duty of children a bit later so that they even do not seek to fulfil the last request of the king. Yet, we can look at this issue from another point of view. It seems that Goneril and Regan cannot stand the presence of their father’s knights who sometimes interfere in their affairs. Thus Goneril states: «His knight grow riotous, and himself upbraids us on every trifle» [1, c. 123–124], she reproaches Lear for keeping his «men so disordered, so deboshed and bold» [1, c, 134] so that her court is «infected with their manners». [1, c. 134] Regan supports her and approves the sister’s demand that the number of knights should be decreased. Indeed, that may explain such a strange behavior of the daughters. The old, prideful, and power-hungry king may sometimes demand too much from his daughters and insult them. It is noteworthy that Lear acts as if he were at home and allows himself to beat and offend Goneril’s servants, though, at that time, it was quite ordinary for an absolute monarch as he felt superiority over others. Nevertheless, he is only a guest of honor, and his rude behavior hurts his daughter deeply, though he does not tend to notice it. As the proverb says, «When in Rome, do as Romans do». Still, we should remember that this bunch of knights and squires are the only people who remain under his control, the only thing left to Lear, the last reminder of his former power. Only among them, he may feel at ease — the king from birth and a sovereign to the marrow of his bones cannot renounce his royal life. That is what his older daughters cannot realise, though their actions may be justified. In any case, children must respect their parents and take care of them.
In the family of Gloucester arises one more issue — the issue of betrayal, envy, self-interest, egoism, and disrespect for father. Due to a strong desire to become an heir of Gloucester, Edmund, his bastard son, decides to trick his half-brother and make their parent think that Edgar wants to kill him. He does everything to achieve his purpose, betrays his own family so that naïve Edgar has to leave the house, and his credulous father Gloucester loses his eyes only because Edmund accuses him of treason and helping Lear. «Let me, if not by birth, have lands by wit» [1, c. 123] — he claims.
Another problem that Shakespeare addresses is the problem of adultery, within the framework of which the consequences of such sinful relationships are analyzed. The author seems to disapprove of adultery and to believe that children born in sin cannot be generous, kind and moral, which is proved by the fate of Edmund. One may assume that from the very beginning, he knows about his filthy and dark soul and already associates his vicious nature with birth out of wedlock. Yet, in the end, it is clear that Edmund realizes that he is cruel and immoral from birth, that evil is in his nature, and that he actually cannot avoid his destiny. When he dies, he utters: «Some good I mean to do, despite of my own nature» [1, c. 258], which proves that he acknowledges his cruelty and possibly even guilt. Shakespeare also gives Edmund the chance to become better so that the character tries to save Cordelia, who has to be murdered by his own order, though this attempt fails. Probably, it means that even though adultery is disapproved and illegitimate children are deemed to be immoral because of the sin of their parents, the former have a choice: to be kind and generous or to be villains.
The playwright also touches upon the issue of jealousy that is demonstrated through the relationships between older sisters. There undoubtedly exists a competition between these two-close people, which is rooted in jealousy provoked by the deception of Edmund, a cunning and greedy man seeking power. The promises to marry Goneril, who already has a husband, and then Regan, who becomes a widow after the death of Cornwall, made by Edmund, result in rivalry and acute conflict between the women and eventually lead to their death. The worst part is that Goneril kills Regan with her own hands and then commits suicide. This fatal love with a young man makes Goneril forget about the loyalty to her spouse so that she does not hesitate to cheat on him. Yet, apparently, she does not respect Albany at all and maybe hates this generous and honest person. Because of the desire to get married to her beloved man, she starts to think about killing her husband and expresses this intention in the letter addressed to Edmund.
After considering human vices and flows, it is worth analyzing the virtues which are revealed through the actions and personality of characters. One should note that the whole play is structured in such a way that one-character contrasts with another, which is based mainly on their personal qualities. Generosity, fidelity, and sincerity — these are the traits that may characterize such people as Kent, Duke of Albany, and Gloucester, who put their best foot forward and prove their allegiance to the kingdom and loyalty to the king. Kent is an example of a courageous and straightforward person who is not scared of Lear’s anger and who seeks to explain to him that humility and silent love of Cordelia is taken mistakenly for insensitivity. And even after having been given an order to leave the kingdom, Kent stays and serves Lear till his death because he is convinced that nobody besides him can take care of a poor and weak king and save him from the heartlessness of his older daughters. As for Gloucester, he also demonstrates loyalty to Lear and tries to find him after the latter leaves the house, which happens because of cruel words and demands of Regan and Goneril, who deeply insult him. Gloucester wants Lear to return to his castle in order to be protected from the horrible weather, and then intends to send him to Dover where he can be in safety. Remaining devoted to the monarch, he eventually loses his eyes. As far as Albany is concerned, he always was against the vile actions of his wife and argued with her. Moreover, without any doubt, he does not want to imprison Lear and Cordelia because he is loyal to the king and feels sorry for him.
As we continue to consider virtues, it is essential to single out the endless love and respect for father demonstrated by Cordelia, who unlike her sisters, remains dedicated to father despite insults and betrayal. Rejected by Lear, disinherited and insulted, she does not hold grudges towards him and keeps love in her heart. After the marriage and leaving the motherland, Cordelia, who was offended by the king more than anyone else, forgives him and contributes to the beginning of the war between England and France in order to protect and save the father and punish his offenders and enemies. She becomes an innocent victim of cruelty and heartlessness of other people and is finally rewarded with death. Yet, she is the person who opens the eyes of prideful and selfish Lear, who changes dramatically and begins to see the world in a whole new way, becoming wiser. Another character, Edgar, behaves in quite a similar way. His destiny resembles Cordelia’s: he is also rejected by his father after Edmund’s lie, has to flee his home and pose as mad Tom o’Bedlam. However, he does not resent Gloucester because the only person to blame is his half-brother. And when he meets his blind, tormented parent, he becomes his guide and helps him all the time. To restore the truth and expose Edmund, Edgar fights and kills him.
To bring the paper to a close, one should emphasize that the play is much deeper, and there undoubtedly are more human virtues and vices revealed by Shakespeare. It is important to mention that almost all the characters experience profound changes that mainly make them better. Thus, Lear realizes that people should not judge others by the words they tell. Gloucester seems to become wiser, stronger, and more loving than earlier after all the challenges he has to face. One can mention that even Edmund changes for the better: before his death, he tries to save Cordelia and do a kind deed, which proves that he starts to acknowledge his mistakes. «King Lear» is a beautifully written and profound play — a masterpiece of literature — which addresses a host of crucial themes and teaches readers many lessons. As G. Wilson Knight once said: «The play is a microcosm of the human race—strange as that word ‘microcosm’ sounds for the vastness, the width and depth, the vague vistas which this play reveals».
- Halio, Jay L., ed. The Tragedy of King Lear. Great Britain: Cambridge University Press, 2020.
- G. Wilson Knight, The Wheel of Fire. Great Britain: Routledge, 2001.