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In The Tragedy of King Lear, William Shakespeare drags his audience through horrific tragedy to get to the core of truth. Violence, pain, betrayal, and finally death come crashing down upon almost every character, good or bad. This peeling away of pleasantries is fundamental to the meaning of the play. Shakespeare begs his audience to shed the false coverings created by a manmade society. These constraints include language, clothing, and other artificial institutions such as wealth and royalty. The play shows us how these created controls break down in the face of nature. In the end, there is nothing stronger than blood, the very essence of a human being. However, the audience has also witnessed the tie of blood marred by intoxicating forces like greed and power. Since even the deepest truths can become hidden by man’s false boundaries, the role of recognition becomes one of the play’s strongest points. Recognition is an enlightened form of sight, which is one of the clear themes of the play. It takes a kind of inner vision to see through the artificial and comprehend the real. Recognition requires both seeing and knowing. The play closely examines this relation, between what is seen and what is true, ultimately turning to insight as the crucial foundation. Through the struggle to find one’s own core identity beneath all of society’s labels, Shakespeare proves that no true knowledge occurs without understanding the self.
To know truth is to see through its many illusions, its masks. The destruction of common modes of façade is deeply rooted in Shakespeare’s treatment of language. One cannot say he is only attacking language, as the play itself is a web of skillfully woven words. Instead, he shows how the power of words can become dangerous when their purpose, as a representation of something deeper, is forgotten. The opening scene sets up the entire plot with a play of words, in which Lear demands flattery of his daughters to prove their love. Right away, a dichotomy is developed: love is the essential, and affectionate words serve man as its lesser representation. Although Cordelia’s language is more basic, her truth is pure. When she says “I love your Majesty according to my bond, no more nor less,” (I.i, l.92) she perhaps seems too frank and unnecessarily blunt. The audience is falling into a trap, beginning their own struggle to recognize what is real. It may seem that Cordelia is selfish in her refusal to simply flatter her father. Her loving sisters appear to obey their father, therefore respecting him by society’s standards. This is precisely the kind of assumption that we, as a flawed human audience, are used to making. It is therefore the sort of opportunity that Shakespeare takes in making his point. Immediately, the dangers of language begin to appear. Lear’s decision to banish Cordelia is obviously rash, and the distrust inspired by Cordelia’s stubborn refusal shifts its focus to the King who places so much in the shallow world of words. A king whose identity requires flattery clearly lacks crucial insight. This is the first step in a developing uneasiness, a tone of uncertainty that will pass into utter madness to teach us a lesson. We have to wonder: Is Cordelia so wrong in her denial of language as truth? The play proceeds to prove she is not.
One manner in which the play deconstructs language is by showing us where it fails in several instances. Some of the most moving moments in the play are those that deliberately, and literally deny the power of words. When the Gentleman returns from delivering tragic news to Cordelia, he tells Kent of her tears and sorrow (IV.iii). In a tone of awe, he explains “It seem’d she was a queen/Over her passion, who, most rebel-like,/Sought to be king o’er her” (IV.iii, ll.14-16). Here, Cordelia has the control of a “queen” over her emotions, but remains honestly subject to them, allowing them to show. She willingly displays her interior, this cautious “passion” which we have seen control her in the past. When, Kent demands “Made she no verbal question?” (IV.iii, l.23) the Gentleman’s description proves her beyond the realm of words: “Faith, once or twice she heav’d the name of/’father’/Pantingly forth, as if it press’d her heart;/Cried, “Sisters, sisters! Shame of ladies, sisters!/Kent! father! sisters! what i’th’ storm i’th’ night” (IV.iii, ll.24-29). Cordelia’s grief is stunningly real because it eludes the boundaries of language in refusing form. There are no complete sentences here, but single words and fragments that mirror the disintegration of Lear’s kingdom. Her emotion is too pure to be constrained by formalities of grammar, the useless rules created by society to guide communication. This is one of Shakespeare’s expositions of the essential through a breakdown of the formal.
The idea of language as an illusion of truth becomes a theme in that it expands to include many characters and instances in the play. Cordelia may be the most consistent or obvious rebel in the fight for the essential, but she is hardly the only the character who illuminates this conflict through her use of words. There are references made to things unspeakable, such as the Gentleman’s observation that Lear’s state is “A sight most pitiful in the meanest wretch,/Past speaking of in a king!” (IV.vi, ll.204-205) or the Fool warns of dangerous times “When Priests are more in word than matter” (III.iv, l.81). These passing illusions to a world beyond words, or the inadequacy of words in grave matters, are half-hidden signposts, quietly leading their audience to a certain conclusion. There are other signals, subtle hints in the language that serve the larger point of betraying its own inherent transparency. One method seen throughout the play, is the use of repetition. The moments when Lear wails “Now, now, now, now” (IV.vi, l.172), “Never, never, never, never, never” (V.iii, l.309), or “No, no, no, no” (V.iii, l.8), are a few of such repetitions, which all occur in the latter stages of his madness, when he has realized the truth of his situation. This not only shows us another character who surpasses formal language in an enlightened state, but allows Shakespeare to comment upon the nature of what is achieved through this abandonment of form. Single words repeated many times drills their limited nature into our minds. The redundancy certainly displays a simplistic quality that is beneath the emotional weight. But it also shows that man instinctively overrides his own rules in moments of truth.
Language is a double edged sword in its limitations and its potential for power. The intense influence of language operates in dangerous ways when it becomes more important than its own point. Beyond the initial dilemma created by Lear’s reliance on courtly flattery, a series of dangerous and dishonest letters set several injustices into motion. Goneril and Regan send letters constantly, containing treason plots against their father and each other (Edmund creates a false letter to vilify Edgar, eventually causing Edgar’s banishment. This early scene is proceeded by an interesting soliloquy, which serves to draw the audience’s attention immediately to the power of words. All of Edmund’s vengeful hatred clearly comes from the label society has placed on him, as he demands “Why bastard? Wherefore base?/When my dimensions are as well compact,/My mind as generous, and my shape as true,/As honest madam’s issue?/Why brand they us/With base? With baseness? bastardy? base, base?” (I.ii, ll.6-10). Again, the use of repetition pounds single words into our heads. Edmund’s frustration is something universal in humanity, as everyone is placed into categories that must be limiting by their very nature as categories. A “king” is also a human being, a man, and a mortal. As the Fool (who consequently trumps language himself by proving to be wise) points out, Lear himself is as much the “fool.” He warns Lear that “All thy other titles thou hast given away, that thou wast born with” (I.iv, ll.149-151). All of this aligns with Edmund’s plight, that a “bastard” deserves acceptance in society despite the name that proceeds him. The consequences of letting one’s titles (mere words), become their reality, are played out in the behavior of Lear and Edmund. The flattery that made Lear too confident in his power leads to Cordelia’s banishment, which is the first in a chain of tragic events. Shakespeare is showing us the other side of the coin, as the hatred bred in Edmund sparks the parallel plot by avenging the word that damns him.
Other artificial constraints are largely noted in the play, accompanying the critique of language in this larger commentary on man’s failure to perceive ultimate truth. Shakespeare often includes clothing as a motif. Like language, it is a layer that stands between human beings, affecting their ability to recognize what is truly before them. Therefore, seeing it peeled away is a crucial return to the pure human being. Just like the first scene, where love is the truth and flattery its shoddy representation, clothing is an artificial construction that has gained too much power. This is perhaps most poignant in Lear’s desire to tear of his clothing as he begins the process of seeing clearly. He is in the depths of madness when he tells the naked Edgar “Thou art the thing itself” (III.iv, l.106), speaking quite directly to this question of ultimate truth. “The thing itself” refers to some pure actuality that has been hidden, just as the naked body is covered by clothing. Lear continues referring to this essential “thing,” in the lines that follow this insight. He wildly decides “unaccommodated man is no more but such a poor, bare, fork’d/animal as though art. Off, off, you lendings! Come,/unbutton here,” as the stage directions warn he is “Tearing off his clothes” (III.iv, ll.106-109). The image of a great king tearing off his clothes in search of truth is laden with meaning for everyone in the audience. We sit and watch, bearing the same human bodies beneath our clothes, abused as outer signifiers of classifications like rank, and wealth. The return to nakedness recalls the innocence of the Garden of Eden, before the fall, when truth was not masked by base human concepts like shame or lust.
In the moment of embracing nudity, the façade of clothing becomes an object aligned with the Lear of Act I, the man deceived by the customs of his court. Evil characters are taken up in the nature-versus-clothing polemic. One example is a description of the devious Oswald, when Kent tells him “You cowardly rascal, Nature disclaims in thee: a/tailor made thee” (II.ii, ll.54-55). What appears a clever turn of phrase is yet another subtle hint on Shakespeare’s part. When Lear is realizing the truth about Goneril and Regan, he exclaims “Allow not nature more than nature needs,/Man’s life is cheap as beast’s. Thou art a lady;/If only to go warm were gorgeous,/Why, nature needs not what thou gorgeous wear’st,/Which scarcely keeps thee warm” (III.i, 267-270). This is a crucial moment in Lear’s growing understanding of truth. The repetition of “nature” signals a crucial epiphany. Nature becomes synonymous with truth, as it is weighed against the two deceptive daughters. This is also the speech which corresponds with the beginning of the storm, the ultimate symbol of nature’s power of mankind.
The famous storm of Act III is crucial in emphasizing the importance of casting off manmade controls. To rush outside in the rain is a recognizable rebellion against reason and experience. Lear must challenge what he has learned in the false world to find new terms of identification. He realizes that he has lived with false comforts far beyond simple flattery, and begins to uncover the world’s injustices when he sacrifices his physical comfort. In one of many revelatory moments, he sees the importance of compassion, which is really a form of recognition: “Take physic, pomp,/Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel,/That thou mayst shake the superflux to them,/And show the heavens more just” (III.iv, ll.32-35). Here is a great king finally recognizing the plight of his people by experiencing it. The storm is necessary to humble him, proving the great power of nature above all. Artificial categories of nobility and royalty are useless in the face of essential truth. And the symbolism of water only furthers this idea of moving beyond such shallow constraints. The suggestion of cleansing is very clear. Lear’s false assumptions are washed away, while Goneril and Regan are comfortably taking cover (III.i). He has shown himself and his audience that he will risk his physical self to gain understanding. In the process of facing nature’s awesome power, he is baptized in a new faith. Now he believes in the power of truth, and the importance of struggling to embrace it.
Lear emerges from the storm with new insight and joins the ranks of the enlightened. Those who try to see beyond assumptions become a solid group, albeit crazy, group as the play progresses. Having established clear demarcations between the essential and its distortions, Shakespeare imbues certain characters with the ability to understand this difference. In the groups of characters, the ability to recognize truth is synonymous with honest intentions and inherent goodness. Cordelia, Kent, Edgar, and even Gloucester all share the vision which disposes of artificial complications. The play opens with Kent and Gloucester recognizing something amiss in the kingdom. In the first two lines, Kent wonders “I thought the King had more affected the Duke of Albany than Cornwall,” and Gloucester responds “It did always seem so to us; but now in the division of the kingdom, it appears not which of the Dukes he values most” (I.i, ll.1-5). They are imbued with the gift of recognition, the ability to compare what “seemed” true to them and what “appears” before their eyes. They play will prove that Albany is the better man, thus weighting their initial perception on the side of truth. Cornelia, Kent, and Edgar all display a visionary quality, the ability to know what they see. Kent claims (to the Gentleman) “Sir, I do know you” (III.i, l.17), just as Edgar tells Oswald “I know thee well; a serviceable villain,” (IV.vi, l.252) and Cornelia chillingly warns her sister “I know what you are” (I.i, l.269). This ability to securely “know” is only associated with the characters who are banished by the court (Edgar’s flight being a kind of banishment, as he cannot return home at penalty of death). This quality of intensified vision is only available to the individual who stands at odds with the kingdom’s reasoning, and/or embraces their sense of self, which they know to be pure in the face of false condemnation.
Just as the “good” characters always see a higher truth, the “bad” characters fall victim to the boundaries of their society. They are preoccupied with shallow notions of hierarchy, and fail to see through even the most obvious lies. Goneril is not so bothered by her father’s mad rants as she is by his disregard for social form. She faces a man losing his identity, and continually whines “You strike my people,/And your disorder’d rabble make servants of their betters” (I.iv, 255-257). Regan displays blindness in her understanding of other people. Her vision is defined by her need for power, rather than the any level of reality. The audience can clearly see her blindness. She calls Gloucester “treacherous villain,” and in the same sentence names Edmund “too good to pity thee,” (IV.i, ll.88-90). Both sisters also fall into Edmund’s trap, despite witnessing his potential for betrayal. This is perhaps the most obvious display of their tendency to see the world as they want to see it, as it is fashioned for them on its surface, rather than digging deeper to find truth.
Shakespeare’s proposed recognition means more than understanding what is before us. He shows us how seeing what is around us begins with recognizing what is within. Characters that prove they can find essential truth in the world are also those who know, deep down, who they are. Cordelia reveals a firm self-possession when Lear repeatedly questions her resolve in denying flattery, in the following encounter:Lear: But goes thy heart with this?Cor.: Ay, my good lord.Lear: So young, and so untender Cor.: So young, my lord, and true. (I.i., ll.104-107)
Her swift confidence in renaming “untender” as “true” betrays the assurance of self-knowledge. She shows she knows her heart, and therefore herself. She also clearly knows that this is more important than the wealth of her inheritance, or the embellishment of her father’s pride. Kent and Cordelia prove their faith in their own morality by their capacity for sacrifice. They are willing to risk their lives, and undergo horrific banishment, to avoid compromising their secure values. This is a conscious alignment with the “essential” in life, which is beyond the mortal human body or the comfort of the home. Cordelia can root her disobedience in acts, in reality. She can recognize her own morality, and rationally considers it with “Good my lord,/You have begot me, bred me, lov’d me: I/Return those duties as are right fit,/Obey you, love you, and most honor you” (I.i, ll.96-98). Moments later, Kent defends his true duty in a similar manner when he states “Royal Lear,/Whom I have ever honor’d as my king,/Lov’d as my father,/As my master follow’d,/As my great patron thought on in my prayers” (I.i, l.140). Here, the honest Kent and Cordelia call upon past behavior to determine truth, as opposed to empty words that could easily flow forth with falsehood. Their ability to see the essential truth of the world is rooted in this confident self-assurance, a quality that defends their inherent goodness.
The gaze that directs simultaneously inward and outward proves to the penetrating in other ways. Shakespeare also shows us the danger of losing sight of oneself. Lear’s journey through madness begins with a flawed recognition, an inability to known himself, and a mistaken move outward for definition. He searches for tools of self-identification, demanding “Does any here know me? This is not Lear./Does Lear walk thus? speak thus? where are his eyes?/?/Who is it that can tell me who I am?” (I.iv, 226-230). He is on the wrong path, asking the outside world to define him. This uncertainty of self follows his inability to recognize the purity of Cordelia’s truth. The meaning of recognition in the play is utterly contained in Lear’s pitiful questioning: The man who loses sight of his identity, having fallen victim to the power of the court’s shallow flattery and other customs, is in dangerous territory. Lear now relies on this shallow world to define his being. Edgar speaks this moral lesson in the closing lines of the play, drawing our attention to the debate between core truth and societal representation. Shakespeare is reminding us that importance of enlightened recognition has been one of his major themes by closing with “The weight of this sad time we must obey,/Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say” (V.iii, ll.324-325). The power to see inward and outward is one and the same. It is the power of true recognition, a vision imbued with knowledge of the self.
King Lear demands much of its audience in focusing on the space between reality and its modes of representation. It bears similarities to many of his other plays in the decision to turn typical assumptions upside down. Shakespeare is constantly reminding us that truth is not a simple concept. To approach it, one must embrace life’s contradictions. Madness inspires understanding, blindness lends sight, and humanity proves more complex for its simplicity. Recognition is a theme that runs throughout the landscape of his work. It is aptly contained in the medium of the play. The process of performance is the act of simultaneously looking and thinking. An audience connects to the scenes, the characters, the situations, that speak to something within themselves. This sets the scene, so to speak, for introspection. In a world without explanations, King Lear is one play that suggests we turn inward for the answers. If we can experience the tragedies of kingdoms, we can apply their lessons to our everyday life. Within each of us is a Lear, momentarily lost in the comfort of false assumptions, searching for ourselves in other people’s eyes. Shakespeare simply provides the teachers, crashing into each other on the proscenium before our very eyes, to help us find our way.
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