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In Reflections on the Revolution in France, Edmund Burke described the effect a complete perversion of social order had on its citizens. He watched as the French Revolution shredded a monarchy, publicly slaughtered tens of thousands, and replaced the old order with a new one. Burke described how this fresh structure decimated the minds of many, so set in their ideals of social roles that a radical change could only drive them mad. Their resistance to a new ideal tore through their beliefs and shoved them to the brink of insanity. This same effect can be seen in the mind of Shakespeare’s King Lear. A man, an archetypal king, who was so immersed in his ideals of hierarchical social roles that any deflection from these roles pushed him to the outreaches of his mind. He had very little concept of the more natural human bonds that exist between people, the bonds that Shakespeare so beautifully defines. Because of this, when the roles he invests his life in shatter, Lear can only grasp the rung of insanity. From this insanity, however, he discovers the natural bonds that stretch longer and much more deeply between humans. King Lear’s madness was a passage that destroyed his ideal of the social role and replaced it with the discovery of the more natural human bond.
To understand this delineation, one must first comprehend Lear’s ideal of the social role. He is a king, or better yet, the king. Upon entering the play, Lear states, ‘Attend the lords of France and Burgundy, Gloucester.’ (I,i-34) His first words are a command, and are replied with, ‘I shall, my lord.’ Lear is to be unquestionably obeyed. His appearance in the entire first scene is grandiose. He makes large commandments, pulling out a map of his lands and dividing them between his daughters like a god. He even refers to himself in the implied collective, using the words ‘we, us, and our to refer to his own actions: Tell me, my daughters/ Which of you doth love us most,/ That we our largest bounty may extend… (I,i-51-52) He is ultimately self-centered, and justifiably so. Monarchical social roles hold the King at the very apex. His most apparent views of this hierarchy in roles are seen within the request just quoted. Lear demands that his daughters publicly display their competing love for him through speech. It is a ridiculous request from anybody but a King. What he is asking is inherently good; he is a father looking for the natural love his daughters should hold for him. However, he is attempting to embrace this love through the lens of his social ideals; that is, his daughters should express this love as subjects to their king. King Lear is obviously immersed in the ideals of a hierarchical order and the social roles this implies, the rejection of which will lead directly to his descent.
The descent into madness begins with the replies to the aforementioned request. His first two daughters respond with loquacious, false speeches about their unquenchable love for their father. Lear is extremely pleased by this, as the speeches fit his idea of his social role in relation to his daughters. These two daughters, Regan and Goneril, feel nothing for the natural human bond and are merely filling their roles. They receive their prize. Cordelia’s response, however, is far from filling a duty. When asked what she can say to draw a more ‘opulent’ response than the other two, she merely states, ‘Nothing, my lord.’ (I,i-88) Lear is infuriated. She is asked to explain. I love your majesty/ According to my bond, no more nor less…You have begot me, bred me, loved me. I/ Return those duties back, as are right fit,/ Obey you, love you, and most honor you. (I,i-93-97) She does not respond as a king’s offspring, but only through her ‘bond’ as a loving family member. It is an honest response, one Shakespeare uses to define the natural relationship between a father and daughter. Lear, however, cannot accept this and quickly banishes her from his life. He disclaim[s] all my paternal care,/ Propinquity and property of blood,/ And as a stranger to my heart and me/ Hold thee from this for ever. (I,i-111-14) Though he loved Cordelia the most, her rejection of a social ideal caused Lear to forever loathe her. Cordelia’s rejection, and Lear’s inability to accept it, was his first step onto the slippery slopes of insanity.
Other rejections of set social roles soon follow. When his most loyal companion Kent steps out of his role as merely a subject and argues with Lear’s rashness, he is exiled. Lear will not accept argument; ‘Come not between the dragon and his wrath.’ (I,i-122) In a matter of a few passages, Lear loses his most loving and loyal companions. And only because a couple characters stepped outside of his social ideals. He then requests that his two ‘loyal’ daughters house him and his hundred knights for the remainder of his life. This retention of knights despite his retirement furthers his downfall. His daughters will not house him along with a retinue of obnoxious knights. They do not follow their role as princesses to a king by disallowing this retinue. The fault here, however, lies largely with Lear. Trying to explain his need for the knights, he states, ‘O reason not the need! Our basest beggars/ Are in the poorest thing superfluous./ Allow not nature more than nature needs,/ Man’s life is cheap as beasts’s.’ (II,iv “259-261) Lear cannot accept life without affirmation of his place in the hierarchy. There is no reason for the knights other than his impenetrable idea of social order. Without this order, humans are merely beasts. This idea will change after his madness, but now he is destroyed. Regan and Goneril, lacking any type of natural familial bonds to their father, connive against him: ‘O, sir, to willful men/ The injuries that they themselves procure/ Must be their schoolmasters. Shut up your doors.’ (II, iv-297-299) This is not something one should say about a king, and certainly not about a father. They are acting as machines, embracing no love for their own father. Neither social role nor natural bonds are seen within the evil. And it rips Lear apart.
The social order crumbles. He is no longer a king; in the blistering tempest, ‘Here I stand your slave/ a poor, infirm, weak, and despised old man.’ (III,I-19-20) A social role reversal begins to twist Lear’s mind; as the fool states, ‘…thou mad’st thy/ daughters thy mothers…’ (I,iv-164-165) The reversal seen in his family spreads through Lear’s mind. In one of the most inherently ironic scenes of Shakespeare, a once-powerful king is bearing a wild storm with only a fool and a lying subject. Lear is self-destructing into madness: ‘The tempest in my mind/ Doth from my senses take all feeling else/ Save what beats there…’ (III,iv-12-14) His realization that he is not at the top of a pyramid has shattered him. Shakespeare’s epitomizing speech of role reversal is given through the fool’s mouth:
When priests are more in word than matter;
When brewers mar their malt with water;
When nobles are their tailor’s tutors,
No heretics burned, but wenches suitors
When every case in law is right,
No squire in debt nor no poor knight;
When slanders do not live in tongues,
Nor cutpurses come not to throngs;
When usurers tell their gold I field,
And bawds and whores do churches build-
Then shall the realm of Albion
Come to great confusion.
Then comes the time, who lives to seet,
That going shall be used with feet. (III,ii-81-94)
The speech portrays the ultimate reversal. The fool, a symbol of wisdom throughout the play, describes the crumbling social order that is so structured in the king’s mind. Lear’s entire world has been flipped, his ideals crushed, and he certainly has come to great confusion.
And then he changes. The madness that penetrates Lear’s core enlightens him. In the first acknowledgment of anybody else’s feelings that come from Lear’s mouth, he says, ‘Come, your hovel./ Poor fool and knave, I have one part in my heart/ That’s sorry yet for thee.’ (III, ii-71-73) It’s a momentous occasion; Lear has found a human bond between himself and his fool. He speaks not as a king to his subject, but as one friend to another. He tells Kent, ‘When the mind’s free/ The body’s delicate.’ (III,iv-11-12) The king knows he has discovered something new, something even more powerful than ranks, roles, and order. When he steps inside of the hovel, he sees the ragged condition a poor, insane man. Another epiphany smacks him: ‘How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,/ Your looped and windowed raggedness, defend you/ From seasons such as these? O, I have ta’en/ Too little care of this!’ (III, iv-31-34) A powerful revelation for an English king… A man who so shortly before cared only about his power and kingship now condemning himself for the conditions of the poor! Lear’s madness hasn’t been cured, it has altered him to a state of clarity. When asked by the fool to tell me whether a madman be a gentleman or a yeoman, Lear replies, ‘A king, a king.’ (III,vi-10-11) The poor man, whose life he earlier referred to as cheap as beasts, is now ordained with the title he once held so dearly for only himself. He is discovering the equality between humans, and the natural bonds that exist. He has realized that, Through tattered clothes small vices do appear;/ Robes and furred gowns hide all. (IV, vi” 162-3) This statement is in stark contrast to his defense of the hundred knights. The robes and furred gowns of his life, his kingship, hid from him the true bonds that exist within humanity. His idea of social order devastated, Lear’s new perspective is one of love, respect, and friendship.
Lear then applies this discovery of natural bonds to his most loving daughter. In one of Lear’s most heartfelt speeches, and in a moment of clarity, he tells Cordelia,
Be your tears wet? Yes, faith. I pray weep not.
If you have poison for me, I will drink it.
I know you do not love me; for your sisters
Have (as I do remember) done me wrong.
You have some cause, they have not. (IV-vi-72-77)
He has realized his horrendous mistake. His only feelings for his daughter are those of love. She is not the daughter of a king; she is his only love. He dreams about spending the rest of his life in prison, ‘We two alone will sing like birds in the cage./ When thou dost ask me blessing, I’ll kneel down/ And ask of thee forgiveness.’ (V,ii-8-11) His earlier metaphor for himself as a ‘dragon’ is diminished to a ‘bird’. The ideal of the King and his followers has been utterly decimated, and all that’ left is a lonely father craving his daughter’s love and forgiveness.
The passage through madness was one of enlightenment. Like those watching the destruction of the social structure during the French Revolution, Lear saw his structured world crumble and those he thought close reverse their social roles. More importantly, the kingship he held so dearly was revealed to be a false idea. Lear realizes that ‘nature’s above art in that respect’ (IV, vi-86) Natural bonds are more important than artificial ones. Shakespeare isn’t denying the importance of the social bond; in fact, as Kent’s character depicts, social order and bonds are vital. However, complete adherence to these ‘roles’, with no respect for the more natural bonds between fellow humans, is ultimately destructive. We must embrace our natural love for another before we can respect the inherent structure of all societies – or possibly use that love to shatter this structure.
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